Isles eager to finish what they started
NHL's condensed 56-game season begins next week
It’s been 3 1/2 months since Anthony Cirelli’s overtime goal ended the New York Islanders’ magical, albeit COVID-interrupted, 2019-20 season in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last September 17.
Trying to reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 1984, the Isles were dumped by the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning, suffering two heartbreaking overtime defeats to close out the series and their campaign.
On the brink of beginning his third year here with the Islanders, head coach Barry Trotz is having trouble shaking the memory of last season’s playoff ouster.
“I have not gotten over the loss to the Lightning,” Trotz readily admitted this past weekend as his team prepared to hit the ice for its first week of practice ahead of the condensed 56-game 2020-21 NHL season.
“I don’t think you get over those things very easily,” he added. “If you do, that’s a problem. You park it, but trust me, you don’t lose it. On my deathbed, that’ll be one of the visions that goes through my head.”
Hopefully, Trotz will have better things to think about when that day comes.
His Isles went from postseason afterthought to championship contender at the league’s bubble sites in Toronto and Edmonton last summer.
Now, they want to be the first Isles team to skate around an arena, be it their own or someone else’s, with the Cup held high above their heads.
“Our expectations are hopefully to take the next step, that’s our goal,” Trotz pronounced.
“What [the playoffs] does is confirm is that we have a good program, a good group and I think we have a very committed group,” he added. “It confirms that when we play the way we need to play and the way this group has the most success, we can be very successful in the league.”
After getting past Florida in the qualifying round last summer, New York beat Washington in five games, survived an epic seven-game series with top-seeded Philadelphia and pushed Tampa Bay to the brink before bowing out.
Lifting Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice is the ultimate goal for Trotz’s charges, who will open the season Jan. 14 with the first of a two-game road set against the arch rival New York Rangers.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do since we got here is raise the expectations from year one to year two,” said Trotz, who won a Stanley Cup for Washington before signing with the Isles three summers ago.
To his and team president Lou Lamoriello’s credit, the Isles have made steady progress since the duo’s arrival.
New York stunned Pittsburgh with an opening-round playoff sweep in 2018 before flirting with reaching the NHL’s ultimate series last year.
Now, it’s time to get over the top.
“The last couple of years have just been a good build in confidence and realizing what we’re capable of,” Isles veteran forward Cal Clutterbuck said before Monday’s intitial team practice.
“It’s just kind of ignited this desire and this burn and a sense of urgency with the guys. We feel very confident in our ability to be successful and the ultimate goal is to win the Cup. We all feel like we have a team that’s capable of doing that. There’s a lot of excitement and work ahead.”
That work begins in earnest next Thursday night at a fanless Madison Square Garden against the hated Blueshirts.
The Isles will be competing in the newly formed East Division alongside their regional rivals in Buffalo, Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington and across the East River.
Only the top four teams in the division will qualify for the postseason, which is scheduled to begin in May.
“Every game is going to be a playoff game,” said New York forward Anthony Beauvillier.
“Every game is going to be a four-point game. Every game is going to be important. We obviously have a really tough division, but that’s something to be excited about. Having really tough games the whole time will be fun.”
The Isles, who spent the past five years playing at least half of their home schedule at Downtown’s Barclays Center, are expected to host opponents at the renovated Nassau Coliseum this season in advance of the opening of their state-of-the-art UBS Arena adjacent to the Belmont Race Track.
Whether they are in Uniondale, N.Y., back in Brooklyn or on the road, where they won’t have to travel any further than the 417-mile trip to Pittsburgh, the Isles are eager to finish what they’ve started since Trotz arrived here in 2018.
“We can be proud of what we accomplished, but we can’t be satisfied” said center JG Pageau, whom the Isles acquired at last year’s trade deadline.
“It’s tough mentally, it’s tough physically, but it’s what we play for and the deeper you go, the more you realize it,” added Beauvillier. “It wasn’t easy to see [Tampa] raise the Cup and you obviously want to be in that situation and that’s the motivation for our team this year.”
That motivation, coupled with New York’s run to the conference semifinals in the bubble last summer, should steel this team for it’s most-anticipated campaign in more than 25 years.
“It prepared us for going through a year where things are different,” team captain Anders Lee said.
“With all of these protocols, testing and rules, things are going to come up where we’ll have to adapt and be ready to make changes on the fly. That prepares us and puts us in a good position. … I hope we can continue where we left off.”
So does Trotz, who came here to bring the Isles back to the top of the NHL world.
“We didn’t win the Cup (last year), so we’re not happy,” he emphasized.
Isle Have Another: This is expected to be the shortest regular season in the NHL since 2013, when a lockout forced the league to stage a 48-game campaign. The Isles went 24-17-7 that year before being ousted by Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs. “Looking back to that year, you didn’t have any time off,” said Isles forward Casey Cizikas. “You didn’t have any time to think about the game before, it was the next game mentality. You’re playing every other night. You’ve got to have a short memory going into every game. In a shortened season, if you don’t come ready to play you could be behind the eight-ball really quick. We have a between group here that went through that. Going into this season, it’s going to be huge that we lean on each other and that we play as a group and not as individuals.” … The Isles will also meet the Rangers Jan. 16 at the Garden before hosting their first home game of the year at the Coliseum vs. Boston on Jan. 18.