TAMPA, Fla. — The Islanders delivered the news their fan base wanted to hear: Mathew Barzal will begin skating shortly.
General manager Lou Lamoriello said the plan is for Barzal, who has been out since suffering a suspected knee injury in Boston on Feb. 18, to start skating on his own either Saturday or Sunday — a vital step in order for the superstar forward to return by the playoffs.
“How long it takes, I couldn’t tell you, but he will begin skating either today or tomorrow. We’ll just go from there,” Lamoriello said before the Islanders’ 5-0 loss to the Lightning. “Until we know any more, I think you can keep asking the questions, but it’s not that we’re trying to avoid any answers, it’s just that the doctors, physical therapists, they determine.”
Lamoriello said Barzal’s return is taking “a little longer” than originally thought — the team initially described his injury as week-to-week.
The good news, though, is how well the Islanders have played in his absence, with an 11-6-2 record.
“These type of things are not uncommon,” Lamoriello said. “You lose players. If you go back a couple years ago, we lost Anders Lee and the team played very well. It has nothing to do with, why are they playing better when a player isn’t there, it’s just that the given time of how you’re playing, the timing.
“And also, Bo [Horvat] had come in at that time, so there wasn’t like we didn’t have a player of that type. So I don’t think that it’s any one specific reason. In fact, I know it’s not. We have been playing well as a team and that’s the most important thing.”
In any case, their recent run of form has allowed the Islanders to cement themselves as a playoff team.
Barzal’s return would allow them to cement themselves as the team nobody wants to face in the first round.
“I think he’s itching to get back,” Bo Horvat said. “I think we’re all itching for him to get back as well. He brings it all to the team and a lot of offensive skill. He’s gonna bring even more than what we’ve got right now.”
Despite having missed over a month of action, Barzal’s 51 points this season ranked second on the team heading into Saturday night.
That underscores just how much his offensive production anchors the Islanders.
“It’s huge,” Kyle Palmieri told The Post. “Obviously he’s a big part of our team. He’s been away from us for a while now. It’s always an encouraging sign to hear he’s gonna be back on the ice and find his way to hopefully join us again.”
The Islanders are not putting a date on Barzal’s return, or even saying whether it will be in the regular season or playoffs.
After the team returns from Tampa and Carolina, there are four games left before a first-round series, which will likely begin in Raleigh or Newark.
In a perfect world, Barzal would be able to ramp up with a couple regular-season games before the playoffs. Whether that option ultimately becomes available, though, is a question without answer right now.
Given the Islanders’ position in the standings, there may not be a need to rush him back for the tail end of the regular season, especially if they clinch a playoff berth before he’s ready to go.
“Him skating is extremely positive,” Lamoriello said, “and then we’ll just go from there.”