“In my opinion, that was the worst game that we’ve played to this point in the playoffs,” New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz said on Sunday night.
My, how the times have changed.
His team had just defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in Game 4 of their second-round playoff matchup to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, which is territory the Islanders organization has not been near for quite some time.
This already is their best season since 1993, which is the last time they made the Eastern Conference Finals following a seven-game upset shocker over the two-time defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Their opponent in this second round 27 years later isn’t necessarily as imposing as a Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr-led Penguins, but the Flyers — who are 308 miles east of Pittsburgh down I-76 — are the East’s No. 1 seed this postseason and the favored side.
Yet the Islanders continue to chug along, preaching defense and organization while sprinkling in a dash of offensive affluence to become one of the most dangerous remaining teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Now, they’re one win away from another trip to those Eastern Conference Finals.
Regardless of advancing or not, the incredible turnaround of the Islanders’ organization continues under the watchful eyes of owners John Ledecky and Scott Malkin, general manager Lou Lamoriello, and Trotz.
Just two years ago, this was a team that finished seventh out of eight teams in the Metropolitan Division with 80 points and the NHL’s worst defense under GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight.
Seventeen of those players from that team are still with the Islanders — which is just another testament to just how much competent leadership does for a team.
Among them is Josh Bailey, the longest-tenured Islander now in his 12th season with the club, who had seen the playoffs just four times before in his career and only experienced one win during the second round of the postseason in two trips.
While he’s in unprecedented territory, which will be looked back at some point in his life with fondness, Bailey is the embodiment of the Islanders’ mindset.
“It’s been fun. I think, again, when you start reflecting on that at this point, it’s only going to hurt you,” he said. “Just keep taking it day-by-day. Make sure you’re prepared physically and mentally and be ready for puck drop.”
With that philosophy, the Islanders have gone from underdogs to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders while in the Toronto bubble where the belief continues to grow.
“I think when you get to this point, the eight teams that are still left believe they can win the Stanley Cup,” Trotz said. “It’s a journey and you don’t know how the journey is going to go. You just have to react to it. You have to forget what happened the night before and look forward.”
“The teams that are here are here because they have a good mindset and that’s where it starts.”
Game 5 and the Islanders’ first chance to punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference comes Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET.