By B.D. Gallof
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When the Islanders began the rebuilding process in 2008, following a dismal season and coming to grips with the grim reality of the severe lack of prospects and future pieces they had in their system, they did not need to look far to find a blueprint for a turnaround.
In Pittsburgh that year the rebuilding of the Penguins was hitting high gear after having just lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals. It was very clear they had a winning formula that was going to compete for years to come.
When the Islanders select players, character seems to be as important as skill sets. Some specific traits have been sought over the last few years. If we flash forward to the current playoffs, we have to ask the following question:
Was the steely nerve and heated desire the Isles have shown since March 1 something they sought out from individuals? Or has it been a pleasant surprise?
It’s just fitting that the most successful iteration of the Isles since this particular rebuild started is now playing the Penguins in the playoffs. What’s more, the Penguins’ fan base has experienced more moments of pause in the last seven days than it has in some time.
What makes Sunday’s loss at home consequential and important is not that the Islanders lost a two-goal lead. Giving the Penguins a long 5-on-3 will do that. But the Isles are showing a resiliency that if they ever get out of this round could serve them well going forward. The Islanders’ core was awful in Game 1, but then erased two-goal deficits in both Games 2 and 3.
Yes, they lost in overtime, but something has changed on this team. You could see it in the locker room. There wasn’t this miserable feeling of defeat. On the contrary, it sounded like a team that knows it can play with arguably the best team in the league.
As the pressure has built up over the first three games, something else has also happened. The Islanders haven’t looked like they will ever fold. They are becoming stronger and willful. They have discovered a playoff mettle and a hunger.
And they look at the Penguins and see not a top seed that deserves all the respect in the world, but a beatable team.
A source close to the Islanders said as much following the Game 3 loss.
“Moral victories are nice, but we can beat this team,” he said.
Not soon after, while walking the locker room, I could see that this was a shared belief.
I could see in the players’ stance, demeanor, and eyes that there is now an ingrained belief. This was not a team just happy to be at the dance, nor was it being too hard on itself following the overtime defeat.
This was a team chomping at the bit for Tuesday’s game. The Islanders simply can’t wait. It’s a stunningly powerful and surprising mentality for such a young team to have.
The Islanders are playing their game, as coach Jack Capuano enigmatically said during the postgame press conference Sunday. In the hot spotlight of more cameras and reporters than the Islanders are used to, even Capuano was unflappable. It was a far cry from what fans lamented during the season as the team went through various trials and tribulations.
Capuano seems now to exude the same confidence as his players.
What the Isles are doing is playing a puck possession game and bringing physicality, the latter of which the Penguins haven’t exactly handled. After starting Game 3 with two quick goals that stunned seemingly everyone in the building, the Isles allowed the next four and you started to wonder if it was just a matter of time before they popped. But they got back to playing their game later in the second, started grinding the Penguins down. And though the Isles didn’t score in the middle period they had done the groundwork for the third, and got the results they wanted.
While it’s true the overtime did not go the Isles’ way, the Penguins escaped with the win and did little to hurt their opponents’ psyche.
Fans and perhaps those watching around the NHL are beginning to realize that there is something more to the Islanders than just their fans’ quest to see them back in the playoffs. At this stage a young team’s backbone, heart and soul get tested, and sometimes even helped shaped. It doesn’t get demoralized, doesn’t lose its edge. Maybe the Isles are simply too young to understand where they are right now. Maybe they don’t care. Either way, they are getting better each game against a team they are supposed to be vastly overmatched against.
And that’s the really funny part. Here’s a No. 8 seed that just can’t wait to get back out there against the top seed.
That in itself speaks volumes.
It’s Time To Turn Up The Power
The Penguins have the best power play in the playoffs at 46.2 percent. The Islanders have the worst penalty killing unit, 53.8 percent. Not only do the Islanders need to stay out of the box, they also need to work a little harder in the event they can’t stay out and keep Pittsburgh’s man-advantage from being a foregone conclusion.
Special teams played a big role for the Islanders all season, but not so far in this series. Their power play, which was in the top 10 in the NHL all season, is currently connecting at a paltry 9.1-percent clip.
Though the Isles believe in their game, that belief and 5-on-5 play might not be enough. The sooner the special teams get back to work, the better the Isles’ chances will be.
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