Isles’ drive for five begins vs. Penguins
Will host Game 1 of best-of-seven playoff series at Coliseum
The last time the New York Islanders had home-ice advantage in a playoff series, Ronald Reagan was finishing up his second term in the White House, Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were on their way to a fourth Stanley Cup title in five years and this thing called the internet was barely in its infancy.
That was 1988, in case you’re still wondering.
But beginning Wednesday night at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders hope to make 2019 a year to remember as they begin their ongoing quest for a fifth Stanley Cup banner by hosting Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of their best-of-seven first-round playoff series.
Though they haven’t raised the Cup itself since 1983, the Isles are entering this postseason – their first since 2016 – brimming with confidence after leading the NHL in goals allowed just one season after yielding the most tallies in the league and failing to reach the playoffs for a second straight year here in Brooklyn.
The defensive turnaround is the first of its kind in the NHL in over a century, and might give New York some hope against a Pittsburgh team that has won three Stanley Cups in the past decade.
“They have a lot of pieces, but we finished second [three points ahead of the Penguins] for a reason,” said Isles center and reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal.
“This group battles,” he added. “We have a lot of competitors on this team, we’ve practiced hard all year and have proven ourselves and beat good teams all year. We’re excited for the opportunity.”
It was an opportunity many thought would come a year or two from now as the Isles began the campaign without long-time team captain and face of the franchise John Tavares, who opted to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs last summer rather than continuing his quest to bring the Cup back to Uniondale, N.Y.
But buoyed by the brilliant coaching of Barry Trotz, who led the Washington Capitals to their first-ever championship last spring, the Isles grinded their way to 103 points behind a virtually impenetrable defense and the strong goaltending tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.
“This is as good a collective group as far as being unselfish and wanting success first,” Isles team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello gushed after completing his first full regular season at the helm of the franchise.
“This is as good a group that I’ve been around that is willing to give up their own individual identity for the success of the team.”
And that’s saying something from the architect of three Stanley Cup champions in New Jersey.
But Pittsburgh presents Trotz’s team with a formidable, albeit familiar, adversary.
The NHL sage of 20 seasons behind the bench, including 11 Stanley Cup playoff appearances, led his Capitals against the Penguins in each of the previous three seasons.
Pittsburgh beat Trotz’s club on the way to back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017 before the Capitals finally got past the Pens last year en route to their memorable title.
“All three series had their twists and turns,” Trotz said Monday following the Isles’ practice on Long Island.
“They beat us doing certain things. We beat them doing certain things. It’s just playing a team in the playoffs in three straight years. It’s just a lot of hockey and a lot of knowledge on each side.”
During this past regular season, the Isles went 2-1-1 against Pittsburgh, beating them in back-to-back games on Oct. 31-Nov. 1 before dropping a pair of December showdowns, including one via shootout.
But Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang know how to go from regular season to playoff mode, helping the Penguins form the closest thing to a dynasty the NHL has seen in the new millennium.
That playoff experience, coupled with the Penguins’ sixth-ranked offense, will doubtlessly provide the Isles with their biggest challenge during this surprising turnaround season.
New York is hoping that the raucous, almost claustrophobic, atmosphere at the Coliseum will help the franchise capture just its second postseason series win since 1993 and first since Tavares’ Game 6 overtime goal at Barclays Center against Florida three years ago.
“The Coliseum definitely has that older building type of feel,” Isles veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck said.
“It’s one of the few buildings left in the league that has the unique and home flavor to us. I know it’s not a great place for opposing teams to come in and play. It’s an advantage for us for sure.”
Whether it’s enough of an advantage to help the Isles get past arguably the best player of his generation in Crosby and the NHL’s most decorated playoff team of the last decade is yet to be decided.
But if New York does pull it off, the Isles will finally return to Downtown Brooklyn for the first time since Feb. 16, hosting all of their remaining home playoff games on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.
“They’ve got championship pedigree, they’ve got lots of experience,” Trotz said of his perennial playoff nemeses.
“We’re just going to bring our best game and go from there.”
While the Isles open their playoff push against Pittsburgh, the Brooklyn Nets are still figuring out who they will square off with in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.
The Nets clinched their first postseason berth in four years with Sunday’s win in Indiana, but will have to beat Miami in their regular-season finale Wednesday night at Barclays Center to cement the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
If Brooklyn clinches the spot, it will take on Philadelphia in a best-of-seven series with the 76ers holding home-court advantage.
If the Nets slip to the No. 7 slot, they will again be on the road, only this time in Toronto against the second-seeded Toronto Raptors.
Either way, the franchise’s rise from the bottom of the NBA to playoff participant is something that might earn Kenny Atkinson serious consideration for Coach of the Year honors in his third season at the helm here in Brooklyn.
“He has done arguably as good of a job as any coach in the league when you look at his improvement each year,” said Nets sharp shooter Joe Harris.
“Obviously I’m again biased just because I’m around him day in and day out and I see his approach and his competitiveness, his toughness, what he’s preached to us has trickled down to each one of the guys. He embodies what we are as an organization. We’re obviously not getting to this point without a leader like that. I think credit needs to be given to him with the success that we’ve had this season.”
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