A 27-year wait ends on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports) when the New York Islanders take the ice for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning — just four wins away from the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s been a hectic two days for the Islanders, who dominated the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 to punch their ticket to the conference final for the first time since 1993. They had to hastily pack up and on Monday, left the Toronto bubble where they had been for the last six weeks, to go out west to Edmonton where the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be held.
“It’s definitely a change of scenery and a quick turnaround for us,” defenseman Adam Pelech said. “We’re just excited to get underway here tonight.”
The Islanders are as well-traveled a team as any of the NHL’s final four. They are the only remaining team from the Stanley Cup Qualifiers with three postseason wins under their belt and the only team to have moved hotels/locations three times.
“There is a little bit of a badge of honor,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “We’re the only team that’s done that. We’ll take it… it’s not worth anything, but understanding that it’s part of the process, it’s helped us.”
Against a Lightning team that is one of the most dangerous offensive teams in hockey, they present the toughest challenge yet for the Islanders’ organized defense. Tampa Bay is also far more rested.
After disposing of the Boston Bruins in five games, the Lightning hasn’t played since Aug. 31, giving them a week to rest, heal, and prepare.
But the Islanders have momentum on their side behind that quick turnaround, and they’re chomping at the bit to get back out there.
“We’re an excited group and I think you can feel it in the dressing room,” center Casey Cizikas said. “Guys are eager and ready to go. When the puck is dropped, you’re going to see a determined team out there.”
Cizikas is one of the elder statesmen of the Islanders having been with the club since 2011. Considering the franchise’s fortunes over the past 30 years, these are obviously new heights for him along with other long-time Islanders ranging from Josh Bailey to Matt Martin, to Anders Lee.
“It means a lot. With the guys that we’ve had here, we’ve been together for a long time,” Cizikas said. “We’ve all put the time and the effort in… guys worked hard and we deserve to be in this position.”
As they’ve been the underdog in each of their last two series against the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, they aren’t favored against the Lightning. But anything can happen in playoff hockey, and Trotz understands what his team is on the precipice of.
“There’s four teams left. That’s pretty special to get to that point,” Trotz said. “The energy is different. You know you’re getting closer. Time’s going to get quicker the deeper you get into this.”
“We’d like to be after this round one of two.”