TAMPA, Fla. — They may not have a wealth of playoff experience, but this group of Islanders certainly knows what it takes to stay alive in a series.
“We just want to keep playing, we want to win the Stanley Cup. We have to just get a win [Sunday],’’ John Tavares said. “Don’t want to make it much bigger than that.”
They’re down 3-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Islanders’ situation is clear: Win Game 5 this afternoon against the defending Eastern Conference champs or see their deepest playoff run in 23 years end.
And that’s not all that would end with a loss Sunday. Kyle Okposo, Tavares’ longtime linemate, will become an unrestricted free agent July 1, so this season’s last game could be Okposo’s last game as an Islander after nine seasons and 529 games in the orange and blue.
The same is true for Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, two other long-serving Islanders. Travis Hamonic made his trade request before the season, and that again will be front and center if the Isles cannot rally after dropping two overtime games at Barclays Center this past week.
The Game 4 loss, 2-1 on Friday night on Jason Garrison’s winner at 1:34 of OT, was a dagger. The Isles were in full control for much of the game but allowed the tying goal by Nikita Kucherov at 7:49 of the third as one of only five Lightning shots in the final period.
“There’s never been any complacency in our team,” coach Jack Capuano said after the Islanders practiced in nearby Brandon Saturday. “Safe, conservative, complacency — these aren’t even words in our dictionary. I want to see us push the pace.”
The series has been a coin flip the past two games after the Islanders chased Ben Bishop in Game 1 and chased the Lightning around in Game 2. Despite all the implications should their season end Sunday, the evenness of this series has the Islanders feeling good about themselves heading into Game 5.
“We’ve been through a lot all year,” Tavares said. “We want to keep it going, we’ve come this far, a lot of sacrifices have been made, a lot of hard work, and we have to take advantage of the opportunity to keep it going.”
Tavares doesn’t have a point in the past three games after posting 11 in his first seven playoff games this spring. He clanked a shot off the post in the first period on Friday night, a golden chance that would have given the Islanders a much-needed two-goal lead.
That they couldn’t pull away when ahead by one in either Game 3 or Game 4 proved costly.
“The game that we won here], we were able to build a little bit of a lead,’’ Tavares said. “If we have the opportunities, we have to bury them, make it a little tough on them, just got to stay positive and keep working. This team’s got the right mindset. There’s a lot of character in here.”
And the players want to keep it that way for at least a little while longer. Okposo, Nielsen, Martin and Hamonic — as much a part of the team’s core as Tavares — have a combined 1,968 games with the Islanders.
“We’ve never brought up contract situations, except at the start of the year,” Capuano said. “I think guys know. It’s a special group, there’s a good bond.”
Those bonds are straining against their toughest test Sunday.
Notes & quotes: Okposo and Cal Clutterbuck sat out Saturday’s practice for maintenance, according to Capuano. Clutterbuck missed several minutes in the second period on Friday with an undisclosed injury but returned for the third period and overtime.