Tom Kuhnhackl

Lamoriello, Trotz orchestrate Islanders’ big turnaround

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NEW YORK (AP) — Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz say they didn’t know exactly what to expect from the New York Islanders this season.

There were plenty of questions after the Islanders gave up 293 goals – the most in the NHL since 2006-07 – while missing the playoffs for the eighth time in 11 years. There was uncertainty on offense when star center John Tavares left in free agency for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

”There were a lot of unknowns. We had no preconceived notions,” Lamoriello said. ”Whatever expectations there were, there were really none one way or another.”

The answers have come in the form of a stunning one-year turnaround that has the Islanders in the second round of the playoffs. New York gave up a league-low 191 goals, charged to second place in the Metropolitan Division and just swept the star-laden Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

Knowing some had picked them to miss the playoff again, players just shrug it off.

”That’s kind of been a little bit of the story line here and we’re used to it,” said Anders Lee, who succeeded Tavares as team captain. ”That’s just the way it’s been, not just this year, it’s kind of always been that way. This year we’ve really taken it on and run with it.”

Both Lamoriello and Trotz say they knew they were going to give up fewer goals with a better defensive approach.

”We wanted to play a certain way,” Trotz said. ”We knew we could fix the goals against, that’s commitment and that’s work ethic, detail and structure.”

The 76-year-old Lamoriello, whose long career includes building the New Jersey Devils into an NHL power a generation ago, vowed to bring a culture change to the Islanders when he took over as the president of hockey operations last May. A few weeks later, he fired general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight.

Trotz was hired as coach in June, days after he led Washington to its first Stanley Cup championship and then abruptly resigned in a contract dispute. The hiring was celebrated by the Islanders’ rabid fan base, which has seen just one postseason series win since 1993 – a far cry from the glory days of winning four championships in a row.

After losing Tavares, Lamoriello went about filling the roster with players with winning experience. Veterans like Leo Komarov, 32, and Valtteri Filppula, 35, were brought in to help the development of youngsters like Anthony Beauvilier. And 27-year-old Tom Kuhnhackl, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, was also a solid addition.

”We were looking for good people, the people who have won,” Trotz said. ”That’s so important for our growth as an organization and a group coming in. We looked for character people and Lou did a great job.”

The Islanders have embraced Trotz’s swarming, defense-first system.

”It’s helped us all along,” said forward Josh Bailey, now the longest-tenured Islander in his 11th season with the team. ”It’s a big part of our identity and I think the more results we’ve seen as the season went on, the more belief (it fostered) in one another and what we were doing, and trust in our staff and everyone.”

A big question in the offseason centered on goaltending after Robin Lehner was signed to pair with Thomas Greiss. Lehner was with Buffalo the previous season and left a game down the stretch because of a panic attack and was subsequently treated for alcohol and drug addiction and also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD. He talked openly about his personal life when he joined the Islanders, and credited the organization and his new teammates with giving him support.

Greiss and Lehner were solid all season. Greiss went 23-14-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average and five shutouts while Lehner was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and six shutouts. The two shared the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner started all four games in the series against the Penguins, limiting them to six goals on 136 shots, and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

The focus on defense has meant playing with more discipline. And while a few players enjoyed boosts in their offensive production, it meant reductions for others, including Mathew Barzal, Lee, Bailey and Jordan Eberle. The sacrifices have resulted in more overall success.

”We play as a team,” Trotz said. ”I think everybody has given up a part of themselves to be a part of something greater.”

The coach points to a road trip in December that became a springboard for the rest of the season. They had lost five of the previous nine after the Thanksgiving weekend, and then won three of four, shutting down high-scoring lines for Colorado and Dallas.

”I think from that point we really trusted our game,” Trotz said. ”We were sort of in-between a little bit and that sort of galvanized the group.”

In the second game after Christmas, the Islanders went to Toronto and shut out the Maple Leafs 5-0 in their first game playing against Tavares. It was part of a stretch in which the Islanders went 16-2-3 from Dec. 8 to Feb. 2 to jump to the top of the division.

”I came into this team and talked to the guys straight in the summer and a lot of the guys said ‘We’re going to go far,”’ Lehner said. ”That just grew during the season when the system started to jell and we started playing together.”

They Islanders say they’re not simply satisfied with just getting to the second round, where they will face either Carolina or Trotz’s former team, the Capitals.

”We’re nowhere near where we want to be at,” Bailey said. ”You have to win four (series) to win it all.”

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Isles’ Josh Bailey finds redemption in Game 1 vs. Penguins

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Josh Bailey could have left Nassau Coliseum Wednesday night ready to relive a Game 1 nightmare as he slept.

A little over a minute after Justin Schultz tied the game at three late in the third period, Bailey had a golden opportunity with seconds remaining to be the hero for the New York Islanders’ in their Stanley Cup playoff series opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But then he heard the worst sound in hockey.

CLINK!

“It just happened so quick. It didn’t lay very flat with me, I was just trying to whack it and hope it went in,” Bailey said afterward.

Bailey, who had only two goals in his previous 20 games entering Wednesday, could have pleaded to the hockey gods and asked what he did to earn such tough luck. Instead, he shook it off and pounced on a rebound after Mathew Barzal hit the post in overtime to give the Islanders a 4-3 win in Game 1.

“I saw the puck just laying there and I was pissed, I obviously thought the chance had ended and see Bails come in and swoop in,” Barzal said. “[I] was just super happy to see that. Awesome for him.”

“You can’t get down on yourself in those situations, as hard as it is,” said Bailey. “Sometimes you want it so bad when it happens, you’ve got to find a way to turn the page. I think that’s just gotten easier over time.”

The Islanders have found a way to battle through adversity put in their way this season. Overcoming those challenges when times get tough begins with an experienced, Stanley Cup winning coach behind the bench. Barry Trotz had plenty of downs in his NHL coaching career before winning a title with the Washington Capitals last season. Coming to Long Island, he was joining a team that had missed the playoffs again and lost their franchise player. But he helped the franchise turn the page to a new chapter, one that surprised the hockey world with a 103-point season.

The challenges put in the Islanders’ way in Game 1 were answered each and every time.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Seven minutes after Phil Kessel quickly evened the score at one in the first period, Brock Nelson beat Matt Murray on the power play to regain the lead. Nick Leddy answered Evgeni Malkin’s power play goal to tie the game at two midway through the third period. Then it was Bailey earning redemption with his overtime heroics after Schultz’s forced the extra period with 1:29 left in regulation.

(You can also add Tom Kuhnhackl’s goal 33 seconds into the game being called back due to offside, and then a second-period opportunity that was deemed to be no goal by the officials after a review to the list of setbacks the Islanders faced in Game 1.)

“That’s just hockey sometimes, especially in the playoffs you’re going to experience those things. It’s all about how you respond,” said Bailey.

Now the Islanders head into Friday’s Game 2 with a chance to take a firm grasp of the series. They proved on Wednesday that they can handle the spotlight of playoff hockey and the momentum roller coaster that comes with it.

“There was a lot of twists and turns in that game,” said Trotz. “They just stayed with it. I like that our group, they didn’t flinch at all which is good. Close games we’ve learned to be comfortable, and there’s going to be close games in the playoffs.”

Islanders-Penguins Game 2 from Nassau Coliseum will be Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Islanders beat Penguins in OT, take 1-0 series lead

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Don’t call it an upset, the Islanders hosted Game 1 … and won it.

After failing to protect a late one-goal lead in the third period, and seeing a potential overtime-winner overturned, the Islanders finally beat the Penguins 4-3 in OT, securing a 1-0 series lead.

The game-winner was a thriller, as this time, the Islanders stayed onside. Mathew Barzal created havoc before taking a dangerous shot. Matt Murray was able to stop it, but Josh Bailey managed to score the game-winner from an odd angle. Just like that, an ecstatic Islanders crowd erupted, and this time, the goal counted.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Islanders locked down the rare treat of opening this Round 1 series at Nassau Coliseum, aka their cozier, grungier, beloved home on Long Island. Their fans said “Yes!” at the surprising opportunity, providing a boisterous atmosphere. Delightfully, the two teams matched that energy with a testy, well-played, back-and-forth contest.

To the eternal chagrin of Oilers fans, Jordan Eberle did a lot better than his zero playoff goals during the Edmonton run that essentially ran him out of town. Eberle scored the 1-0 goal after the Isles saw a different tally overturned, and he also assisted on the 2-1 goal. Phil Kessel continues to be a force in the postseason, as he scored Pittsburgh’s first goal and assisted on Evgeni Malkin‘s 2-2 tally.

When Nick Leddy made it 3-2 with a seeing-eye wobbler, it seemed like the Islanders might secure the win. After all, Robin Lehner‘s been outstanding all season, and it just felt like the story to tell.

Justin Schultz said no, though. His goal (which was fairly similar to Leddy’s) came with 1:29 remaining in the third period, and overtime it would be.

Early in the overtime period, Tom Kuhnhackl bowled over Murray attempting to score the winning goal. There was a review process, and it was ruled no goal. Kuhnhackl, a former Penguins winger, seemed to also score a 1-0 goal that was overturned as offside. If nothing else, Kuhnhackl was busy against his former team.

And, hey, he got the last laugh. At least in Game 1.

Islanders-Penguins Game 2 from Nassau Coliseum will be Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Islanders host Blackhawks at Nassau Coliseum

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks will try to rebound after yet another outdoor defeat, as the Islanders look to continue their pursuit of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Islanders have 44 games remaining this season, 18 of which will be played at Nassau Coliseum. The team left the Coliseum for Barclays Center at the end of the 2014-15 season. They plan to move into a new facility at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, for the start of the 2021-22 season.

The Islanders have been one of the biggest surprises in the Eastern Conference and are very much alive in the playoff race. New York has won of seven of their last eight games, including four straight.

There’s been no sophomore slump for Mathew Barzal, who took home the Calder Trophy last season behind 85 points and 63 assists, which were fifth most in the league. He has been particularly hot lately, riding a five-game point streak (6G, 3A).

Meanwhile, Chicago has scored first in eight of their past 10 games, after allowing the first goal in each of their previous 11 games.

Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton was a second round draft pick by the Islanders in 2003 (by then Isles GM Mike Milbury) and played all 57 games of his NHL career in an Islanders sweater. He was also the former captain of the team’s AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at New York Islanders
Where: Nassau Coliseum
When: Thursday, Jan. 3, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Islanders-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Artem AnisimovDylan StromePatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfDylan Sikura
Brendan PerliniMarcus KrugerAndreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Collin Delia

ISLANDERS
Anthony Beauvillier – Mathew Barzal – Josh Bailey
Anders LeeBrock NelsonJosh Ho-Sang
Michael Dal Colle – Leo Komarov – Tom Kuhnhackl
Matt MartinCasey CizikasCal Clutterbuck

Nick LeddyJohnny Boychuk
Adam PelechRyan Pulock
Devon ToewsScott Mayfield

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

The Buzzer: Taylor Hall does it all for Devils, Maple Leafs rout Kings

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Three Stars

1. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils. The reigning league MVP played like it on Tuesday night as he contributed to all four goals in the Devils’ 4-2 win over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins. Hall scored the game-winning goal 8:07 into the third period and then put the game away with an empty-net goal later in the period. Along with his two goals he also had the primary assist on the Devils’ first two goals, setting up Travis Zajac and Damon Severson. Hall is now up to 18 points in 16 games this season.

2. Tom Kuhnhackl, New York Islanders. We have to give some attention to Kuhnhackl here because this is the type of game he just does not have. He not only scored one of the weirdest goals of the season (watch it here) when he somehow slipped the puck behind Jakob Markstrom while falling to the ice and looking in the wrong direction, but then he went and added another goal later in the game to help the Islanders pick up a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks. With his two goals on Tuesday night he now has three goals on the season in only seven games. Keep in mind he only scored two goals in 69 games a year ago, and only four in 57 games the year before that, and only five in 42 games the year before that.

3. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs. This was not even a contest. The Maple Leafs completely rolled over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday by a 5-1 margin in a game that was not anywhere near as close as the final score. John Tavares was the star of the night for the Maple Leafs with three points and seven total shot attempts (including four on goal). He is now up to 22 points in 18 games this season. The Maple Leafs, even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, are very good. The Los Angeles Kings are struggling.

Other notable performances from Tuesday night

— Thanks to a three-point night from Mike Green the Detroit Red Wings were 6-1 winners over the Arizona Coyotes and have now won seven of their past eight games. Who saw that happening?

Tom Wilson returned to the lineup sooner than expected and had a crazy night. He scored a goal and got called for a penalty on the same play, got into a fight, and was a plus-two on the night. He was an assist shy of the Gordie Howe hat trick. The Capitals rolled to a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Max Domi‘s 10th goal of the season (more than he scored in each of the past two seasons) was not enough for the Montreal Canadiens as they dropped a 6-2 decision to the Edmonton Oilers. The duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl was the difference for the Oilers as they each had three points on the night.

Jeff Skinner has been exactly what the Buffalo Sabres needed. He scored another goal in their big 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.

Highlights of the Night

Just because it is worth one more look.

Joe Thornton hits the 400-goal mark with the game-winning goal against the Nashville Predators.

Factoids

It was not just a big night for Joe Thornton in San Jose. Erik Karlsson is still searching for his first goal of the season but he did reach a personal milestone of his own on Tuesday night.

The Florida Panthers are on a roll thanks in large part to Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov.

Mathew Barzal is one of the league’s best players and an exceptional playmaker.

Scores
New Jersey Devils 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2
New York Islanders 5, Vancouver Canucks 2
Florida Panthers 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Buffalo Sabres 2, Tampa Bay Lightning 1
Detroit Red Wings 6, Arizona Coyotes 1
Washington Capitals 5, Minnesota Wild 2
Edmonton Oilers 6, Montreal Canadiens 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Los Angeles Kings 1
San Jose Sharks 5, Nashville Predators 4

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.