Trying to close out a playoff series is one of the hardest things to do in hockey.
Just ask the Islanders.
After taking a 2-0 series lead in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Florida Panthers, the Islanders could not pull off the sweep on Wednesday after a 3-2 Game 3 loss, prompting a Game 4 at noon on Friday (MSG+).
It was an expected pushback from the Panthers — coached by three-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach Joel Quenneville — who are playing with a backs-to-the-wall mentality that makes any team facing elimination that much more difficult.
For Islanders head coach Barry Trotz, that Panthers desperation should be expected yet again — and he’s reminding his team that there is no way to avoid it, either.
“The hardest game to win in a series is a knockout game,” he said. “Any time you have your back against the wall, you’re fighting and giving it all. You have to have that even if your backs aren’t against the wall. You have to have that killer instinct.”
“You have to have the acceptance that this is going to be a hard game. You can’t look to play around this game, you have to play through this game.”
One of the Islanders’ most experienced players when it comes to postseason success, Nick Leddy — who won a Cup with Quenneville and the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013 — has played his fair share of elimination games from either side of the aisle.
Trying to close a series out is much more difficult.
“Obviously, if you’re one game from being eliminated, there’s a lot of pressure off you. You can go and play,” Leddy said. “On the other end, it’s a lot harder… Those were the hardest games to close a team out while they’re playing a little stress-free.”
While the Panthers put forth their best effort in their Game 3 win, it was supplemented by uncharacteristic Islanders play that featured ill-timed penalties, miscommunications, and disorganization.
Those fixable mistakes have the Islanders still feeling as though they are in a good spot, but the right mentality is going to go a long way.
“In order to beat a good Florida team, you have to play your best,” Trotz said. “If you’re looking for an easy game on a closeout, you’re not going to get it. And if you do, it’s rare or seldom.”
It’s safe to say the Islanders will be ready for a Florida push, but Trotz will continue to keep the message simple and supportive.
“Look forward to it. Obviously, we knew this was going to be a tough series,” Trotz said. “Just come out and play our game, play hard. Every experience that you have, good and bad, is a learning experience.”