There is little hyperbole when saying Friday night will bring the biggest game for the New York Islanders since the days of their dynasty, featuring four-straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980-83 and another appearance in the final round in 1984.
The Islanders will take the ice in Tampa Bay against the Lightning for Game 7 (8 p.m. ET) of the NHL semifinals with the simplest of ultimatums: Win, and they’re off to their first Stanley Cup Final in 37 years. Lose, and go home.
No pressure, right?
Not really, but Islanders head coach Barry Trotz has maintained the philosophy that his team should enjoy each and every moment that the playoffs provide, especially when they’re bringing the oft-downtrodden franchise to heights unknown for a generation (or two) of fans.
“You play all year to get to this point. You get one opportunity and it’ll be there,” Trotz said of what he’ll tell his team before Game 7 on Friday night at Amalie Arena. “Just stay in the moment, enjoy it, embrace it, and don’t get small. Don’t get wound up. Just stay in the moment, stay calm, and give your best effort.
“You’re going to have two focused teams, Game 7 with a chance to go to the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t get better than that.”
Laser focus is what the Islanders need against a high-powered Lightning team that lit them up for eight goals in Game 5 on Monday night in Tampa before Anthony Beauvillier’s overtime winner on Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum forced the always-celebrated Game 7.
When the Islanders are “playing their game,” as they describe it, they’re one of the most difficult sides in hockey to break down — as evident for much of the playoffs with two or fewer goals allowed in 10 of their 19 games.
But that focus is also paramount when it comes to playing from behind, which the Islanders have done all postseason long, too. Game 6 on Wednesday night saw New York fall into a 2-0 second-period hole; the 12th time in 19 games that Trotz’s men had to play catchup.
“It’s about narrowing your window of focus and focusing on what’s in front of you,” veteran winger Cal Clutterbuck said. “When it’s during a game, it’s just the next shift, the next puck. And if you get down a couple, what can you really do but be yourself and keep going?
“If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t… We’d like to score first but we’ve had a lot of situations where that hasn’t been the case and we’ve won those games, too. For us, it’s about worrying about what happens the next time you go over the boards.”
The message of Trotz and his veterans has permeated throughout the Islanders’ ranks where simplification is key.
“It’s another hockey game in which you have to bring your best,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “Either win a game and move on or lose and go home. Our focus will be on the right things and we’ll be ready to go and ready to bring our best.”
Maybe that’s too simple of a way to describe things, especially for the fans who have no more cuticles left to chew or sleep to run on during their team’s best playoff run in three-and-a-half decades. Then again, sleep may be elusive for one or two of the orange and blue, too.
“These are things when you’re a young kid or young coach, you dream of these situations,” Trotz said. “There’s one tomorrow night and that’s fantastic.”