Isles hope to survive ‘Hurricane’ season
Finally return to Brooklyn ice in second-round opener Friday night
For one of the few times this season, Barry Trotz was dead wrong.
Way back on Nov. 26, the Islanders’ first-year head coach told his former team that they’d have to “go through the [expletive] Island” to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
That was just four and a half months after he’d led the Washington Capitals to their first-ever NHL title.
Turns out the Capitals didn’t have enough to survive an epic first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
And as for “the Island”, it won’t play host to any of New York’s remaining playoff games.
So on Friday night in the heart of Downtown Brooklyn, the Isles will return from a 10-day layoff following their startling first-round sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins and host Carolina in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Barclays Center.
Trotz, who spent the first two decades of his NHL coaching career pursuing and ultimately winning Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice last June, was receiving his championship ring from his former team prior to Washington’s 4-1 victory over New York four days after Thanksgiving on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush.
He told team captain Alex Ovechkin and the Caps that while they were fully capable of winning a second straight title, they’d have to fight their way through his new team to do so.
With an early 2-0 lead and late one-goal advantage Wednesday night in our nation’s capital, Washington appeared primed to host New York this weekend in the opener of a best-of-7 second-round series.
But Jordan Staal’s third-period goal evened the contest at 3-3 and when Brock McGinn redirected a shot off the stick of Justin Williams past Braden Holtby midway through the second overtime, the Isles finally knew exactly when and where they’d be playing hockey again following their extended hiatus.
Instead of booking a flight to D.C. or returning to the “Old Barn” in Uniondale, N.Y., they’d be back at the arena where they haven’t played since Feb. 16.
Aside from practice, New York hasn’t hit the ice in earnest at all since posting a 3-1 Game 4 victory in Pittsburgh on April 16.
“It feels like we haven’t played for a while,” Trotz admitted Monday. “We’re using the time [off] productively.”
Part of that productivity was getting healthier.
Veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck and Scott Mayfield both appear ready for action against the Hurricanes after leaving the series finale in Pittsburgh with undisclosed injuries.
The Isles beat Carolina three times in four meetings during the regular season, including a season-opening 2-1 overtime victory here in Brooklyn on Oct. 4.
Back up netminder Thomas Greiss, who hasn’t seen any playing time since April 4 at Florida, started all four games vs. the ‘Canes and held Carolina to one goal in each of the first three meetings.
But Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner, who limited Pittsburgh to four even-strength goals in the first round, is likely to be back between the pipes Friday night as the Isles continue their pursuit of the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup title and first since 1983.
Carolina, much like New York, is a team built on its stalwart defense, which ranked seventh in the league in goals against.
The Isles, who finished first overall in GAA just one year after ranking dead last, will see a mirror image when they hit the ice at Barclays on Friday night.
“I think Carolina is a lot more similar to what we are,” Lehner said of the ‘Canes. “They’ve very, very good defensively. They play well in all three zones. They work really, really hard.”
Trotz, who coached Williams, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, in Washington, also ceded that Carolina would be a formidable foe for his Isles, even before he knew his November prediction would be foiled by the ‘Canes.
“If we end up playing Carolina, there’s a lot of character in that room,” he told the New York Post following the completion of the Penguins series.
“I’ve had Justin Williams and I know his character,” he added. “I know his leadership. I know that team in Carolina, you watch them, they have a lot of heart. They have some highly skilled players. They might have one of the more underrated [defensive] corps in the National Hockey League.”
And they will also have to deal with what should be a sellout crowd here in Brooklyn.
“Our fans are going to be there and they’ll blow the roof off the place like they always do,” said veteran Isles forward Matt Martin, who was part of the last playoff series win here in our fair borough back in 2016.
“In terms of venue, it really doesn’t matter, our fans will bring the noise and we just have to go out there and do our jobs and feed off the crowd.”
And follow their brilliant coach’s lead as they have done all season long, even if he isn’t much of a soothsayer.
“Honestly, I just want to play,” Trotz said.
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