By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
So how do the Islanders pull off this miracle?
They can start by watching “Miracle,” of course.
In the wonderful movie that told the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, coach Herb Brooks, portrayed brilliantly by Kurt Russell, barked out the famous phrase that resonated with his team after they were brutally punished following a lackluster tie against Norway during the European tour leading up to the Games.
“This cannot be a team of common men. Common men go nowhere. You have to be uncommon,” Brooks said.
The Islanders, by their standards, were very uncommon men during the regular season. They were the group of mostly fresh-faced kids that came together as the season wore on. They looked awful early, but slowly started to believe.
But when they open the Eastern Conference playoffs at top-seeded Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, coach Jack Capuano will have no additional cards to play. His team is what it is, a collection of players that needed 20 or so games to realize it had the potential to be a heck of a lot more than the salary cap floor operation it was.
The Islanders had talent from the start, and they never deviated from their vision, regardless of how poorly they played at times. They followed their blueprint without so much as a hint of panic. When the fans screamed spend, general manager Garth Snow worked his magic on the waiver wire. When players struggled, they for the most part stayed out there, even with budding stars sitting at Bridgeport ready for a shot. And when the Isles did promote someone, they brought up players that fit roles. They simply never freaked out, even when they found themselves in that all-too-familiar spot near the bottom of the conference.
In fact, in five years of rebuilding this once-great franchise, the dynamic and philosophy have never changed.
There’s something to be said about that.
But now, the first maturation process is over. If the Islanders were kindergartners transitioning to elementary school before, they are eighth graders thrown into the bully-infested hallways of high school now.
And this latest trial by fire begins with arguably the best team in the NHL.
I’m not being overly dramatic here when I say the Penguins are a nightmare matchup in every sense of the word. You can make the argument that they are better than the Islanders in all facets of the game. For each star or up-and-comer the Isles have, the Penguins will roll out one battle-tested player after another, and that’s in addition to Sidney Crosby, provided he plays the entire series, and Evgeni Malkin. And while the Isles’ lack of playoff experience has been overblown, it’s hard to predict how they’ll handle many postseason situations.
Simply, the Penguins know they are that good. They are, in this scenario, the Soviets.
The Islanders have to be who they are — an opportunistic group of players that treat each shift as if it’s their last. They are going to have to respond to adversity. Like Brooks said, “Play your game.” The Islanders have no choice but to do that, and if it still results in a first-round exit, no one will think any less of them for it.
The Islanders are about speed, responsibility, transitional play and hard work. They have but one player who can take over a game, and everyone knows it. But John Tavares, for all the attention he’s received as a possible Hart Trophy candidate, has had to deal with being a marked man nearly every night. And while he’s mostly succeeded in finding his space and scoring timely goals and making needed passes, he’s also been rendered invisible from time to time.
If the Islanders are to have any shot in this series Tavares has to take the next step, continue the prophecy that has him eventually becoming one of the best players in the NHL. Some say he already is. I say he has to show it in the playoffs to leave no doubt.
But all that said, this matchup is brutal. Tavares simply cannot be expected to do it alone.
Against Montreal, Washington or even Boston I could see Matt Moulson, Brad Boyes, Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen having their moments. But against Pittsburgh, because of its depth, size, speed and experience, those players are going to have to find something within themselves that forces a light to go on, one that glows bright and says “I can be more.” If they do their part, Tavares will shine. If they don’t, the Isles’ first playoff experience since 2006-07 could be over before they know it.
The Islanders will need to find a Ray Ferraro in this series, the player that scores the big goals at the opportune moments. Ferraro, if you remember, was a monster during the 1992-93 playoffs, the last time the Islanders won a postseason series. He scored 13 goals and had 20 points in 18 games as the Isles reached the then-Wales Conference finals. He did it all, scoring at even strength, on the power play and, multiple times, in overtime.
So who’s it going to be this time around? Like I said, Tavares will be expected to do it, but, realistically, he’ll need a lot of help.
All season the Islanders benefited from their great energy line. The third unit of Colin McDonald, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin helped turn the tide when the Isles were staring at losses. Maybe one of them, or perhaps all three, can provide the impetus that allows the Isles to build some momentum, because the longer this series goes, the better their chances will be of pulling off the huge upset.
Defensively, the Islanders were sound for most of the second half, allowing more than two goals just four times in their final 17 games. One would think if the burden falls on any one player to lead by example along the blue line, it would rest squarely on captain Mark Streit. He’s been waiting forever to play meaningful hockey. He also wants a longer contract than the Isles at this point are willing to give. A standout performance in this series could very well kill all of his birds with one stone.
Then there’s probably the single biggest factor that could spell upset for the Islanders, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.
Nabokov put up a 2.29 goals-against average in 80 playoff games with San Jose from 1999-2000 until 2009-10, but was often criticized for not making the truly big stops in big spots. Unfairly or not, he sort of became a poster boy for the Sharks’ failures to win a Stanley Cup during that period.
The 37-year-old Russian has been a very good Islander. And while his numbers this season weren’t extreme top shelf — 2.50 GAA and a .910 save percentage — he made many a big save as the Islanders ripped off an 11-1-3 run to get into the playoffs.
But he’ll need to play the best hockey of his life to give the Islanders a chance in this series. Goaltending tends to be the ballgame at this time of the year. Nabokov, as good as he has been, needs to show the Islanders he’s the man of the future just as much as the man of the present. Like Streit, a strong showing in the playoffs probably gets him what he wants from the Isles in the offseason.
I could go on and on. I could emphasize the special teams units, but you already know they will need to be stellar, because 5-on-5 the Penguins are simply better, and not only have the ability to score goals in bunches, but, perhaps more telling, have all the skills to keep the puck away with a lead and turn stretches of periods into shooting galleries if they find themselves behind.
At the end of the day, the Isles need to get timely and inspired performances from several players to extend this series. They absolutely have to take one of the first two in Pittsburgh before returning to Nassau Coliseum, which despite all of its faults and the understandable fears of a lackluster turnout, should sound a lot more like it did during the 2001-02 series against Toronto than it has during any of the past five angst-filled seasons.
Some people love to fall in love with what Los Angeles did last season, as if it somehow can be a rule rather than an exception. Well, the Kings had to start somewhere and they got the ball rolling by upsetting Vancouver, a team many pegged to win it all, like has been the case this season with Pittsburgh. The Islanders are now saddled with a similar opportunity.
The Soviets ruled the world of amateur hockey back in the day, but Brooks stated over and over that “somebody is gonna beat those guys.” The Penguins are beatable, but only if the Isles do what they did during the season’s second half without deviation, without thinking too much and without feeling good about what they’ve already accomplished.
If they come in focused in that fashion they could very well give the mighty Crosbys some moments of pause.
And if that happens, who knows?
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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