ELMONT, N.Y. — Consider Simon Holmstrom’s first audition as the New York Islanders’ first-line right winger alongside Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat a success.
“I felt good,” Holmstrom said after the Islanders’ 3-2 opening-night victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. ” I played a lot last season which helps a lot, so I was just excited to be out there.”
The 22-year-old forward, who scored just three times in 50 games last season, started the preseason slate in rookie camp before ultimately running away with the first-line vacancy while showing the intangibles that had Barzal gushing about him earlier this week.
“He’s smart, big, has silky hands, a good shot,” Barzal said of Holmstrom on Thursday. “He’s got a little bit of everything and then the more he gets comfortable out there winning battles, once he gets comfortable using his size a little more, he’s going to catch some people off guard.”
Holmstrom exhibited all of that on Saturday even though the first line was kept off the scoresheet, providing a calming presence in the neutral zone and strong board play to facilitate moves for his high-profile linemates. Horvat had eight shots on goal while Barzal attempted six of his own with three making their way on net.
“I’m just trying to find them and create some space for them as well and be strong on the puck,” Holmstrom said. “I’m just trying to do my best out there and help them as much as I can.
“It was a great start for us. I thought we could’ve scored a couple times, but it’s coming.”
It’s nearly the exact showing that he’ll need to exhibit often to stay on that top line — though he did pass up a pair of decent looks at goal with the puck on his stick — while the likes of Oliver Wahlstrom and Julien Gauthier wait for openings of their own to break into the starting lineup after being healthy scratches on opening night.
“I thought he was hunting pucks down and creating some turnovers,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert said. “I thought he made some good passes. I thought he made some good plays. I’d like him to shoot a little more but I thought he was complementary to those guys for sure.”