Isles adjusting to NHL bubble life ‘frame of mind’ in Toronto
Overcoming mental hurdles is priority, says Lee
Their bodies are fit, the conditions in the Toronto NHL bubble are bearable and the goal is to advance into the traditional 16-team playoff chase for the Stanley Cup.
But for the New York Islanders, who opened training camp 2.0 north of the border earlier this week, getting their collective psyches back in sync appears to be the biggest challenge of this much-anticipated restart following a four-month layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The biggest thing is the frame of mind,” Isles team captain Anders Lee said Monday after the team completed its first practice in preparation for a best-of-five qualifer series against the Florida Panthers, which will begin Aug. 1.
“There’s nothing to worry about with the guys’ conditioning or anything like that. This is going to be a challenge mentally,” Lee added. “Going into a hub city, staying into a hotel, having that bubble and quarantine life, none of us have been through that so we don’t know what it’s like.”
Lee and his teammates had their season paused on March 12 due to COVID-19, just before trying to snap a season-high seven-game losing streak in Calgary.
They spent most of the next three months isolated from one another before returning to the Northwell Health Ice Center on Long Island for small-group voluntary workouts last month.
So ramping things up for a win-or-go-home series against the Panthers, a team they beat in all three previous meetings this season, is more about getting their attitudes adjusted for the task at hand, rather than working themselves into playing shape.
“The mindset has to be that we’re playing for a playoff series,” Isles head coach Barry Trotz said. “So, let’s get that mindset and go from there.”
“That’s all you can ask is to attack the day, attack the challenge, accept what’s in front of you and don’t try to get around it — just work through it just like how we’re going to have to work through it. Don’t try to get around that series, we’re going to have to play right through it.”
The Isles, who were one point out of the final two playoff spots in the East when the season got suspended, received a bit of a reprieve when the NHL announced its 24-team Return to Play Plan.
By getting a qualifier series against Florida, New York has a chance to reach the postseason for a second consecutive season, which would be a first since the franchise relocated to Brooklyn in 2015.
Despite his emphasis on the importance of beating the Panthers, Trotz did not drill the Isles as hard in their return to the ice as he would have had this been a normal first week of training camp.
“Thankfully, it wasn’t one of Barry’s opening training camp days,” Lee jabbed playfully after Monday’s initial workout.
“I think we might’ve had a few more guys in the training room if that were the case. But I think today was a great first step. It’s good to get back on the ice, get into our drills and all those old things, find those old habits. No matter what, it’s going to get your heart going.”
It’s also going to get familiar again, despite the fact that the team will be in isolation and receive regular testing, as per rules of the NHL’s strict safety guidelines.
“I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time,” said Isles veteran forward Casey Cizikas, who along with defenseman Adam Pelech was out due to injury at the time of the pause, but is fully healthy and raring to go for the restart.
“I know (Pelech) has too,” he added. “He’s been out a little bit longer than me. It’s been about almost six months for me since I’ve been skating with the guys. To be out there was fun — just battling with them, getting to do the drills — it was fun.”
It will be even more so if the Isles get past the Panthers and seriously begin to challenge for their first Stanley Cup title since 1983, when the team capped a dynastic run of four consecutive NHL championships.
But first things first.
The Isles know that training and playing in a bubble environment in the hopes of reaching the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup Finals, both of which will be held at the NHL’s other hub site in Edmonton, Alberta, can’t be accomplished without getting their minds right.
“It’s going to be a different thing,” Lee emphasized.
“This is just going to be a mental challenge. The hockey stuff is going to fall into place. When we play our game we give ourselves a chance like anybody else.”
Isle Have Another: The Isles bolstered their roster, not just for this abbreviated restart but for the future of the franchise earlier this week when team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello inked Russian goaltender Ilya Sorokin to a one-year contract for the 2020-21 campaign. An eight-year veteran of the KHL in Russia, Sorokin was the Isles’ third-round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft and has emerged as one of the top international netminders. He has an overall record of 134-64-22, a 1.70 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage in 244 KHL contests. Expected to be the team’s goalie of the future, Sorokin will receive a reported $1 million and another $1 million in bonus money, making him eligible to join the Isles in Toronto ahead of the restart and keeping him signed through next season, when the team may return to Downtown’s Barclays Center. “There’s no question that his stats and his resume speak for themselves as far as the success that he’s had in the KHL, as well as the Olympics and World Championships,” Lamoriello said via a conference call with reporters. “We certainly feel highly of him, but as you know all those records go out the window when you come to the National Hockey League … He has the skills and talent to have success.”
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