Islanders on the brink entering Game 4
Face elimination Friday night in Carolina following latest tough loss
The Islanders are on the verge of elimination, or at the doorstep of history, depending on how you choose to look at it.
Faced with an 0-3 series deficit for the first time since 1994, New York will try to begin climbing out of the deepest possible playoff hole Friday night in Raleigh, North Carolina when they take on the Hurricanes in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We’ve got to earn our right to keep playing,” Isles first-year head coach Barry Trotz insisted following his team’s 5-2 Game 3 loss in Carolina on Wednesday night.
“Our backs are against the wall and we have to come back with our best effort [in Game 4],” Trotz added. “If we don’t, then we won’t earn the right to play.”
Nor will they earn the right to return to Brooklyn ice, where they dropped the first two games of this defensive-themed series via two excruciating one-goal losses at Barclays Center last weekend, including Friday night’s Game 1 overtime stunner.
Game 3 featured more scoring and more opportunities for New York, which managed just two tallies combined in Games 1 and 2.
But the result was eerily similar.
Following Josh Bailey’s seeing-eye equalizer at 14:13 of the second period, the Isles appeared poised finally to get some much-needed puck luck and seize the third act of this ongoing play in hostile territory.
But Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner was burned behind his own net, mishandling a puck that wound up on the stick of Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, who deftly slid it in front of the New York net, where three-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams buried it for a 3-2 lead midway through the third period.
Teuvo Teravainen and Aho added empty-net goals in the final minute to send the sea of red-clad Hurricane fans into a frenzy, forcing the Isles to look to the NHL history books for some hope.
Only four times in the history of the league has a team overcome an 0-3 series deficit, including the Isles themselves in 1975 vs. Pittsburgh.
The feat was achieved much more recently however, in 2014 by the Los Angeles Kings and 2010 by Philadelphia.
The Isles, who had dropped three games in a row just once this past regular season, aren’t looking at their chances through the prism of a three-games-to-none hole, however.
Instead, Trotz’s crew is focusing on the only thing it can control: Game 4 Friday night.
“There’s only one way to look at it. You have to earn the right to keep playing,” team captain Anders Lee said, echoing his coach’s sentiments.
“Game 4 is in a couple days,” he added. “We have to win it. That’s all it is. We have to keep ourselves alive.”
These quotes are eerily similar to the ones spouted by Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins following Game 3 of their eventual sweep at the hands of the Isles in the opening round.
Much like this series, that one was decided by a few breaks in crunch time, a fortunate deflection or two, and the outstanding goaltending of Lehner, who took full responsibly for his Game 3 gaffe following another frustrating defeat.
“I own that one,” Lehner said of the third-period giveaway that put Carolina in front to stay.
“Tight game, we had chances, they had a lot of good chances and it came down to one play.”
Trotz remained true to his team-first mentality when defending Lehner’s fatal error, reminding his starting netminder and the rest of his team that any success they have achieved during this surprising turnaround campaign has come via a group effort.
“I appreciate him [taking responsibility], but we win and lose as a team,” Trotz noted as his team prepared for what may turn out to be its final game of the year.
The last time the Isles were in this spot, against the rival New York Rangers, back in 1994, they dropped Game 4, 5-2, at the Nassau Coliseum, then spent the next month watching from home as the Blueshirts captured their first Stanley Cup crown since 1940 in historic fashion.
These Isles don’t have history or much in the way of playoff experience on their side entering Friday’s do-or-die contest.
But they do believe a single win can turn this thing around, even though they feel they should already have a win or two against the Hurricanes, who have seemingly stymied them at every turn throughout the series.
“We’re in a tough spot. [We] can’t let the frustration set in,” said Bailey.
“I think the series could easily be the other way around. That’s how close [the] two teams are and how these games have [gone]. It hurts thinking about it that way, but at the same time we’re right in it.”
Trotz, who orchestrated the greatest single-season defensive turnaround in over a century of NHL hockey this year, isn’t the least bit concerned with his team’s attitude entering Game 4.
“One thing I know about our group is that this group has been resilient all year,” he said.
“Everybody has doubted this group in every way, shape or form. They don’t in the room, I don’t doubt them.”
Game 5, if necessary, is back in Brooklyn on Sunday night.
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