Prior to his team taking the ice for Game 7 of their second-round playoff series, New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz told his charges to enjoy the experience and the challenge in front of them. He told them, “Let’s have an Islander game,” and “Let’s play Islander hockey for as long as it takes.” Well, the Islanders certainly did that. They played the kind of game that would have their GM Lou Lamoriello doing a happy dance.
And that is, they didn’t give the Philadelphia Flyers a sniff, limiting them to just 16 shots, including a second period in which they gave up just three. That has a lot to do with the way the Islanders play and a lot to do with the fact that the Flyers core is chock full of players who haven’t accomplished a whole lot of anything in big games and were no-shows for this one. That has to be a huge concern for the Flyers, who have to wonder whether they’ll ever win anything of consequence with the likes of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier as the heartbeat of their team.
The Islanders seem to be an easy target when it comes to hating on them. Last season, their critics pointed out that most of their success was goaltender driven and this season they’re being vilified for being too boring. A lot of people inside and outside of the organization talk about the Islanders playing the game, “the right way.” And most of them are coaches, most of dream of 1-0 chess matches. The way the Islanders play tends to attract more detractors than followers.
But going into the conference finals, the Islanders are also the highest-scoring team among the four remaining in the playoffs. They scored at least three goals in each of the seven games against the Flyers and showed an ability to capitalize on mistakes and strike quickly and lethally. To be sure, things are going much better offensively in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, when the Islanders struggled to score goals. At a time of the year when offense regularly gets choked off, the Islanders are scoring 3.38 goals per game, which is third-best in the NHL in the playoffs, compared to the regular season when they finished 22 in the league with just 2.78 goals per game. (The Dallas Stars were even worse than the Islanders at creating offense in the regular season and are just behind them in goals per game in the playoffs. Because 2020.)
They’re even scoring more than the Tampa Bay Lightning, their opponent in the Eastern Conference final, if you can believe that. Despite all their offensive talent, the Lightning have transformed themselves into a team that is comfortable playing in close games when it’s difficult to generate offense. So perhaps those who might be expecting a goal-a-palooza when these two teams meet in Game 1 Monday night might want to reconsider.
“I think we know how we want to play,” said Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield. “I think when we’re moving north, getting the puck in, being physical on the forecheck, not playing slow…we have a fast team, so playing fast. We have our identity and that’s what we try to get to every game.”
The Islanders will need all of that and more against a Tampa team that has gone 8-2 through the first two rounds of the playoffs and will enter Game 1 as a rested and prepared team. The Lightning had a goals-differential of plus-50 this season, while the Islanders were minus-1. Gulp. We’re not sure this means a whole lot, but in the two games the Islanders played the Lightning this season, they won both and outscored them 10-3. The first win came in the midst of the Islanders’ 16-2-2 start to the season, while the Lightning were sputtering.
“I think we’re getting used to whatever you throw at us, we’ll just deal with it,” Trotz said. “This is a resilient group. There are no excuses. We’re just going to have to find a way to have each others’ back, prop each other up and play a very good Tampa team and see if we can get a victory.”