In an NHL playoff like no other, New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz has grown accustomed to the various unexpected challenges.
There’s been times he’s waited until 10 p.m. to learn when the next day’s practice is scheduled. Game times had been reshuffled after the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets played a five-overtime marathon. And games have postponed due to social justice causes.
It was no different Sunday.
Getting little sleep or time to celebrate a 4-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 the night before, the Islanders scrambled to pack up in Toronto and board a flight for Edmonton, Alberta, where they’ll open the Eastern Conference finals against the well-rested Tampa Bay Lightning starting Monday.
”We’ll worry about the moment, and the moment is we’re going to get on a plane in a few minutes,” Trotz said.
”I think we’re getting used to whatever you throw at us. We’ll just deal with it,” he added, beginning to laugh. ”This is a resilient group. There’s no excuses. We’re just going to have to find a way to have each other’s back, prop each other up and pay a very good Tampa team and see if we can get a victory.”
It’s gotten the sixth-seeded Islanders this far, with the team making its first conference final appearance in 27 years.
The challenge is facing a second-seeded Lightning opponent which has lost just twice in the first two rounds, despite being without captain Steven Stamkos, who has been out since having surgery to repair a core muscle injury in March. On Sunday, coach Jon Cooper ruled Stamkos out from playing against the Islanders.
One plus for the Lightning is they arrived in Edmonton on Saturday, and have been off since eliminating the Boston Bruins in Game 5 of their series on Aug. 31.
”I think it’s a little bit nice to have some time to get used to your surroundings,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”But it’s not really going to make that much of a difference once game-time happens.”
The Lightning refuse to be distracted from the task at hand in reaching the East finals for the sixth time in team history, and fourth since Cooper took over in 2013-14. Tampa Bay, however, has been eliminated in seven games in each of its past two conference final appearances (2016 and ’18). And then there’s the stinging reminder of last year, when the President’s Trophy-winning Lightning were swept in four games in the first round by Columbus.
”As a group, we’ve learned from tough losses,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. ”It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you’ve got to look forward to the next game. And that’s going to be a big focal point in our room: Stay in the present.”
Tampa Bay has trailed only once in a series this playoff after 3-2 loss in Game 1 against Boston. The Lightning responded by outscoring the Bruins 17-7 in sweeping the next four games, and closing with a 3-2 double-overtime win.
The Lightning are backed by Vezina Trophy finalist goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has allowed four goals on 101 shots faced in his past three games. Offensively, they’re led by Brayden Point, who is on a six-game point streak (two goals, nine assists), and has a point in 12 of Tampa Bay’s 13 playoff games.
The Lightning have also bulked up their roster from last year by adding numerous players through free-agency – among them, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk – and trading first-round draft picks to acquire Barclay Goodrow from San Jose and Blake Coleman from New Jersey.
The Islanders have been no pushovers. They’re getting balanced scoring, with nine players – including two defenseman – having two or more goals. Center Mathew Barzal has provided the team a big spark with his dazzling shiftiness.
They lost just once each in eliminating Florida, in the preliminary round, and Washington, before nearly squandering a 3-1 series lead against the Flyers.
The Isles responded with a smothering performance in Game 7, in which they outshot the Flyers 26-16, with backup Thomas Greiss earning his first career playoff shutout. He played in place of Semyon Varlamov, who was showing signs of wearing down after starting 14 of New York’s first 15 playoff games.
Trotz liked what he saw from his team in the face of adversity.
”Our team has grown,” he said.
”We’ll have to dig in,” Trotz added, referring to the short turnaround between games. ”This is the new normal. And we’ll deal with it. And hopefully, we’ll have a good game tomorrow. That’s all we can ask.”