Nobody ever said it would be easy. Some might have thought otherwise after the New York Islanders disposed of the Florida Panthers in four games, the powerful Washington Capitals in five games, and took a 3-1 series lead on the Philadelphia Flyers. But, then something strange and unexpected happened: the Islanders lost their identity.
‘We had plenty of chances, I thought we had a pretty good game. I didn’t like a couple of our decisions that they capitalized on. That’s the tough part about the game and the playoffs, it can change so quickly. You can dominate, get lots of chances. Then you win a draw, break a stick, and they come down and score. That’s playoff hockey,” head coach Barry Trotz said after the Isles’ 5-4 OT loss in Game 6 Thursday. “You have to battle through. We are going through a lot of adversity that we have not gone through yet. This is two evenly matched teams. If you look at the big picture, it's probably fitting that it's going to Game 7.”
Everyone knows what the Islanders’ keys to success are. All you need to do is watch consistently and look at their record when scoring three or more goals under Trotz: it’s all about defense, neutral zone control, and puck decisions. In this series thus far, the Islanders have outscored the Flyers 10-3 in their wins, and been outscored 13-10 in their losses. There have not been many spans in the Trotz tenure where New York has allowed four goals twice and five once in a six-game span.
The focus, consistency, and attention to detail has waned since the series wins against Florida and Washington. The 5v5 dominance that the Islanders showed against the Capitals is not an advantage against the Flyers (15 GF/15 GA) and they are playing to a 48 percent Corsi in the series. The power play is still a confused prayer of a man advantage. Sometimes moving the puck with confidence, generating chances, and other times, like in overtime last night, producing nothing but killing two minutes off the clock.
Trotz can say what he likes to the media, and nobody will question him, nor should they. He knows a hell of a lot more than we do. But, he must have genuine concern heading into a Game 7, where his team can potentially blow a 3-1 series lead and have lost three crushing games in overtime.
His goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, is battling inconsistency, just as his teammates are defensively in front of him. Many analysts say it’s ‘easy to play goal’ in Trotz’s system, and when that system is working, they are spot on. When it doesn’t work, as we’ve now seen three times, you need a big save from your goalie. Especially last night, the Islanders did not get it. At one point, Varlamov had allowed four goals on just 14 shots.
Kevin Hayes beat him clean up top in the first. James Van Reimsdyk did, too, on a slapper from the top of the circle. Michael Raffl scored off a rebound Varlamov could not contain. Scott Laughton beat him on a breakaway. I can’t be hard on the overtime winner, with traffic in front and stickless Scott Mayfield taking Raffl down right in Varlamov’s grill. With all that said, the chances were there for New York. Even in allowing four goals, Carter Hart made some remarkable stops – stops that the Islanders could use from Varlamov in Game 7.
Consider, at the end of the day, it's the playoffs. You have to expect wild swings of emotion, flow, and momentum. You cannot win a Stanley Cup in this environment without facing adversity. The Islanders are facing it for the first time in two-plus series. Sure, it's Game 7 and anything can happen. The Islanders can lose, but more importantly, they can also win. They have the structure and coaching necessary to do so. They simply have to execute and get back to what made them successful in games one, three, and four.
“I don’t have to tell that much to our team. We have a lot of experience in that dressing room, lot of guys have been around the league for a long time,” veteran Derick Brassard said after Game 6. “We just have to focus on Game 7, battle hard. We did some really good things tonight.”
Focus, indeed, or else there won’t be another Game 1 until next season.