Going along with head coach Barry Trotz’s “climb the mountain” analogy, the Islanders’ next pit stop on the way to the top is against the Boston Bruins.
“It’s been quite a while, quite a journey,” said Brock Nelson after the series-clinching win over the Penguins at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday night. “A lot of guys in here that have been around, a couple of guys that have been here longer than I have. I think it just goes back to this is a special place, a special group that really wants to go out there and win and compete for a Stanley Cup and raise it.
“To be seeing progress and getting close and having runs, it’s awesome. It’s fun. We’re trying to go all the way.”
Game 1 of the second-round series between the East Division rivals is set for 8 p.m. Saturday in Boston.
Despite winning a majority of their regular-season matchups with Boston, the Islanders can expect an experienced Bruins squad that is playing some of its best hockey after defeating the Capitals in five games.
The Islanders won the first five of their eight meetings with the Bruins, outscoring Boston by a head-turning 18-8. But during the Isles’ plummet to the fourth seed in the East toward the end of the season, the Bruins took three convincing wins by a 10-3 margin.
Boston coach Bruce Cassidy highlighted the Islanders’ patient style of play, tough defense and top-notch goalie tandem on Thursday. He even noted that he feels both teams share a lot of the same attributes, saying “we’re playing ourselves a little bit.”
Is it possible for the Islanders to have another series as close as the first round?
In six games against the Penguins, there was 66:28 — or the equivalent of more than one whole game — of play with a tie score. There were too many lead changes to count, 37:21 of overtime, and four one-goal games. Throw in one double-OT battle, one stolen victory behind rookie goaltender Ilya Sorokin’s 48-save performance, and a few come-from-behind rallies.
To say it was tight would be an understatement, but the Islanders withstood it all and are now one of two teams remaining in arguably the toughest division in the NHL.
The Isles overcame their fair share of obstacles. Usual No. 1 goalie Semyon Varlamov missed Game 1 with an injury and was seemingly out of sync in Games 2 and 3, which combined with the team’s inability to get to their game first resulted in their only two losses of the series.
Sorokin stepped into the first NHL playoff series of his career and not only gave the Islanders a chance to win but elevated his game and dazzled with tremendous poise between the pipes.
And when rookie winger Oliver Wahlstrom was injured in Game 5, the Islanders’ answered the first challenge to their depth with ease. In fact, the team didn’t waver at all. Travis Zajac, who was acquired from the Devils along with Kyle Palmieri (who had three goals in the series) at the trade deadline for that very reason, had a noticeable impact in his Islanders playoff debut.
The Islanders may have chased every game, but they were never out of it. That’s what makes this team so difficult to beat: It is built to last.
“We’re enjoying this win right now,” Zajac said after Wednesday’s series-clinching win. “In the next day or two, we’ll get ready to go up against Boston. They’re playing some good hockey. They beat a really good team. We beat a really good team, so it’s going to be another fun series.”