The New York Islanders’ overtime loss in Monday night’s regular-season finale to the Boston Bruins cemented a first-round playoff meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins — the top seed in the Eastern Division.
Regardless of whether or not the Islanders won to move up to third place, which would have been confirmed if the Bruins lost to the second-seeded Washington Capitals, a difficult, physical first-round opponent was going to waiting for the No. 4 Islanders.
That’s not lost on head coach Barry Trotz, who leads his Islanders to the playoffs for the third consecutive season, including a trip to the Eastern Conference Final last year.
“We’ve had good success the last couple of years. I think we’re probably a little deeper than last year, but I think all the four [playoff] clubs are deep,” Trotz said. “Boston has a great combination of skilled people and a great combination of some weight. Washington is a very big team with a lot of weight, Pittsburgh continues to get bigger, especially in their bottom line.
“They’re deep, they’re fast, they’re skilled. It’s going to be the team that gets to their game, stays with their game, and gets it done. That’s what I’ve learned all these years, you have to get to your game and stay to your game.”
While the Islanders hold the most recent playoff advantage over the Penguins, sweeping them out of the first round two years ago, Pittsburgh owned New York in the regular season, winning six of eight games.
Game 1 of this series, however, is coming roughly six weeks after their last meeting — a two-game set in Pittsburgh that the Penguins won after the teams played six times in February.
“Systematically, I don’t think there’s a lot of change and we haven’t been paying a lot of attention to them — just trying to go forward here,” Trotz said of the Penguins. “But I think with [head coach Mike Sullivan] and the Penguins, they’re not going to change their style a whole lot. They have a real good forward group, their defense is mobile, they have two inexperienced goaltenders, and they play a real good team game. They’re not afraid to put it north and forecheck. They play a 200-foot game. A lot of things we have to do, but it’ll be a fight for inches here.”
While the NHL has yet to announce when the series will start as we wait for the Vancouver Canucks to complete their COVID-delayed regular season, it should begin near the Capitals and Bruins’ series opener on Saturday.
That provides the Islanders with more of an opportunity to get some much-needed rest while preparing for Pittsburgh.
“We’ve been taking quite a few days off just to let people heal. Understanding that when we have to play, we have to play with some weight, we have to grind a little bit,” Trotz said. “We’ve earned the right to get into the playoffs and hopefully, it’ll be a few more months of that same grind… We’ll dissect a little bit of the Pittsburgh Penguins as they’ll do with us and let’s get it on.”
With all the preparation and focus that comes with the intensity of playoff hockey, one of Trotz’s main missions is to ensure his players relish the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup yet again.
“I want our guys to enjoy the playoffs,” he said. “It’s so hard to get here and there’s pressure, but I want them to enjoy it. Just leave your best game out there. And if they leave their best game out there, hopefully, good things happen.”
They’ll be able to enjoy it even further after New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday that Nassau Coliseum’s capacity can increase for the playoffs with nearly 7,000 fans permitted into the arena — a sizable jump from the 1,400 currently allowed.
“I think it’s going to be great. I think it’s going to be refreshing for the players, I think it’s going to be refreshing for everyone involved,” Trotz said. “It’s a step necessary going forward because everybody’s getting vaccinated. We’ve committed to wearing masks, those protocols, and it’s slowly but surely getting back to a degree of normalcy. I think the fans are going to be crazy. When you’ve been locked up, caged inside basically for the last year, there’s nothing better than playoff hockey to get the emotions out, if you will.”