The Islanders had to deal with something no one else remaining in the Eastern Conference playoffs had to on Sunday: travel.
As the only remaining team from the original Stanley Cup Qualifiers in the conference, the Islanders joined the East’s top remaining seeds at Hotel X in the Toronto bubble. True to the city’s form, they got stuck in traffic getting to their press conferences on Sunday afternoon, just a day before the start of their second-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Getting us out of our comfort zone isn’t bad at this point,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “Our goal was to make it through the series and get over here. We have other goals in front of us now.”
The Flyers are the surprising No. 1 seed in the East following a strong showing in the round-robin tournament, which was followed up by a six-game triumph over the bottom-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the First Round.
It also provides the Islanders with a second-straight divisional rival in the postseason.
“Anytime you have a division matchup in a playoff, that rivalry is going to increase a little bit,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “Anytime we see these guys or anyone else in the division, it’s a pretty intense game, and obviously, that’s going to be no different coming up in the next round.”
New York swept the Flyers in their three-game season series before the COVID-prompted regular-season shutdown, but both teams are considerably changed, according to Trotz.
“You could see the improvement as an outsider, I think they’re an improved team,” Trotz said. “They grew as a group and they got better and better and they passed us in the standings. They’re a good hockey club and they have a lot of good pieces.”
Not only will there be the challenges of playing the East’s top seeds in the playoffs, thus re-sparking a dormant rivalry that hasn’t seen postseason play since 1987, the Islanders will also have a packed schedule with little practice time. The first four games are scheduled in six days.
“You really dial in there, we’re not out there long, but you have to be focused and determined to make sure you get everything you need out of a practice,” veteran defenseman Andy Greene said. “After that, it’s more mental — being mentally focused and ready to play.”
For Trotz, key decisions will come in keeping his goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, as fresh as possible during such a hectic schedule. That means this season’s potential playoff debut of Thomas Greiss.
“I think we’ve been managing the workload. That’s something you want to do,” Trotz said. “I’ve talked to our goaltending department… we’re sort of anticipating the workload and sort of adjusting as we go along.”
“We’ll take it one day at a time. If one guy is going well, we’ll get him the rest and put him back in.”
Varlamov has been the anchor of the Islanders’ superb defense during these playoffs, going 7-2-0 while posting a 1.67 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.
“Since we’ve been here, he’s been absolutely fantastic. He’s stood on his head,” Greene said. “Just calm and very square and he battles. He fights out there and he battles with us. I’ve just been very impressed with how he’s played so far.”