In a lot of ways, these Islanders remind me of the 1960s Maple Leafs. Well, except for those four Stanley Cups within six years, that is. Or at least so far, wink, wink.
Those Toronto teams were not only built for the playoffs, they were better in the postseason than during the regular season. A top seed only once in their four championship seasons, their unique slow-it-down, tight-checking approach to the 70-game regular season prepared them perfectly for the playoffs.
And so it is on the Island, where the precepts of both executive-in-chief Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz do not bend to serve the flavor of the day. From Day 1, it’s all about grinding, being responsible without the puck and taking hits to make plays. It is about playing a demanding style under which a straight line is the shortest distance taken between two points.
It is about playing playoff hockey from beginning to end.
The Islanders are a quarter of the way to their first Cup since 1983 following their first Coliseum closeout of a series since 1993’s six-game, first-round victory over Washington ended with Pierre Turgeon taking that dishonorable hit from Dale Hunter that likely doused the team’s Cup hopes.
They are a quarter of the way through once more following Wednesday’s 5-3 Game 6 victory over the Penguins in a raucous, celebratory atmosphere in which the Islanders kept their composure despite falling behind three different times.
What turned it? Why, the Islanders remembered to shoot the puck at the shooter-tutor in nets who went by the name of Tristan Jarry.
Look, playing goal in the NHL is a tough job, but sorry to say that Jarry just was not up to it. Not in the series and not in this game. His performance was the stuff of Pee Wee hockey.
The Penguins went ahead 1-0, and the Islanders tied it 3:49 later. The Penguins went ahead 2-1 and the Islanders tied it 1:13 later. The Penguins went ahead 3-2 and the Islanders tied it 6:42 later … by scoring their first of three goals on three consecutive shots within a span of 2:59 midway through the second period.
“It’s a special group we have,” said Anthony Beauvillier, who scored his team’s first goal and added a pair of assists in combining with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey on the team’s most dangerous and effective unit. “We stick with it. … It’s a mindset we have, it’s the leadership in the room. We know that one goal is not necessarily going to win the game so we stick to our plan. It’s the playoffs. There are going to be ups, there are going to be lows, and you just have to battle and fight through it.”
The Islanders have a lot of practice at sticking with it, not only through the regular season, but through the last three tournaments. For beginning with 2019, the Islanders have played 36 postseason games, fourth in the NHL behind the Bruins (42), Stars (40) and Blues (39).
These aren’t your underdog Islanders anymore, even though they will probably wear that tag facing Boston in Round 2. That does not matter just as it does not matter that the team wheezed its way to the finish line, dropping from the top of the division to fourth place while going through a full month in which the Islanders won only three games in regulation — and every one of them against the Rangers.
Again, though, this is a team built for the tournament that has been under construction for years. Seven members of this club have been together for nine postseason series dating back to 2016, with another seven together for seven postseason rounds going back two years.
This is a team forged with steel that thinks as a unit, plays as a unit, and advances as a unit. It is a team that practices what Trotz preaches in good times and bad, when in the lead and when chasing the game, as the Islanders were doing for much of this game’s first 28 minutes.
“They don’t deviate too much from [the process],” said the coach, whose team once trailed the series 2-1. “We just find a way to keep on task. When we do that, we can do a lot of things as a group. When we go off individually we’re not that good but when everybody stays on task, we can accomplish a lot as a group.
“I’ve always said this to every team I’ve had — if you want to go somewhere fast, go by yourself, but if you want to go somewhere far, go with the group.”
The group once comprised Mahovlich, Horton, Bower, Armstrong and Keon. Now it’s Nelson, Barzal, Bailey, Pulock and Sorokin.
Past prelude to the future.