By Daniel Friedman
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Four games are in the books and the New York Islanders could’ve conceivably won all of them.
Nevertheless, they find themselves neck-and-neck with the Washington Capitals, tied heading into Game 5 of their opening-round playoff series.
The teams split the first couple of games at Verizon Center in D.C., with the Isles winning the first contest and the Caps taking the next one. Then, when the series shifted to Nassau Coliseum, the same sequence of events transpired.
That is not to say that the first two games and the most recent two were identical in nature. Game 1 was virtually dominated by the Islanders from the opening whistle, with the reverse occurring in Game 2, though New York found a way to pot three goals on just 21 shots and keep it close.
In Game 3, it was the Islanders’ turn to go back on the offensive, undoubtedly feeding off the energy from the raucous fans at the Coliseum. Naturally, it was John Tavares who scored the overtime winner, the first for the Isles in a playoff game since 1993, when David Volek ended the Penguins’ quest for a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
And, just like that, despite being outplayed over the final 20 minutes of regulation and blowing the 1-0 lead they so desperately held on to for most of the afternoon, the Isles rediscovered their resilient side.
They just found a way to win.
In Game 4, it was the Capitals who’d blow their 1-0 lead, though they did it with 12 seconds to go in the first period. And, like the Isles two days earlier, it was the Capitals who found a way to win in overtime, as Nicklas Backstrom sent a fluttering shot past a screened Jaroslav Halak.
The loss was a tough pill to swallow for the young Islanders, but it did not come as a result of a lack of intensity. For the vast majority of the game, it was the Isles who were on the attack, constantly testing Caps goaltender Braden Holtby.
By no means did the Isles play a perfect game on Tuesday night. They struggled in certain areas, particularly on the power play. That’s something they’ve got to fix and fix quickly. Still, there was no guarantee that even a well-oiled power play would have done the trick, given the way Holtby was playing and the strong performance by Washington’s penalty killers, which should not to be overlooked in all of this.
All that said, how much can we really criticize the Islanders for losing such a hard-fought contest that truthfully could’ve gone either way? It came down to a bounce, and the Capitals got one first. It wasn’t because of a defensive breakdown or the Isles taking their foot off the gas pedal.
It was a lucky bounce, one that came with some assistance from a broken stick that left John Tavares and his teammates at a disadvantage.
Yes, you would have liked to have seen more offensive production over the last couple of games. I think it would make a lot of sense to swap Nikolay Kulemin and Anders Lee, because the Isles really need to get Lee going. There’s no better way to do that, than to give him a shot to play alongside Tavares – a spot he’s already had some success in this season.
That said, I don’t think these low-scoring affairs have been entirely due to a lack of execution in the offensive zone.
I think you’re seeing much tighter defense on both sides, more of an emphasis on board play and physicality as opposed to east-west rushes and finesse. That’s one of the main reasons why it’s the Casey Cizikases and Cal Clutterbucks who are having a bigger impact in this best-of-seven.
Holtby has also been excellent, as has Halak for that matter.
If you think about it, the Capitals haven’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut over the last couple of games, either. It’s not a coincidence.
Now, both teams can make adjustments with the benefit of hindsight. But in the moment, there hasn’t been much to pick out and complain about, aside from the power play. If anything, I think the Isles have have far more positives than negatives through four games.
Considering the way the Islanders finished the season, things didn’t appear to be looking too good for them going into this first round. And yet, we’ve seen them find that resiliency; find that work ethic that made them successful for much of the season. We’ve seen this team do a complete 180, and for the better.
We’ve seen the defense step up in the absence of Travis Hamonic, who has essentially been the glue that’s held that blue line together since the moment he was called up from Bridgeport in 2010.
Everyone has stepped up, including the much-maligned Brian Strait. With the way he has played in this series, he may be the Isles’ second-best defenseman. It’s been real nice to see. He looks like the player I used to think was effective, before injuries took their toll on him.
They might have their issues to work out, but the bottom line is this: the Islanders are significantly better, both in terms of their execution and their mental toughness, than they were over the previous two to three months. That’s a tremendous accomplishment for a young team that’s had to overcome quite a bit of adversity this season.
With the likelihood that Lubomir Visnovsky is not going to be available to play Thursday, it appears that the Isles will have to deal with even more adversity. Whether it is Matt Donovan or Griffin Reinhart who gets the hall, these guys will have to continue to step up. At least now we know that they’re capable of doing that as a collective unit. That was not a given in March and April.
The Islanders have a chance here to do what they have not done in 22 years. They have a chance to win a playoff series. It’s there for the taking.
By the looks of things, however, it will not be an easy road. They’ll have to endure at least six games, and I’m betting on a seventh – though that remains to be seen. And yet, here they are: halfway to the finish line, in a race they can win.
As Johnny Boychuk said after Tuesday’s game, “Everyone knows what we need to do now.” That’s what a focused locker room sounds like. That’s how a team that knows they can win and is determined to do so thinks.
Now, it’s just a matter of going out there and getting the job done.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI