The Isles are slowly, but surely, chipping away at the standings.
As soon as Doug Weight took over as head coach, there was no hiding from the Islanders. A spot in the playoffs for the Eastern Conference is staring at the players in the dressing room before every practice and before every game. The Blue-and-Orange are just one point behind the Leafs for that final Wild Card spot, and here we are headed to Toronto for the Isles’ fourth game in six days.
Needless to say, Tuesday’s matchup is a biggie.
The Isles are focused on their next chance to win a game, but there are other factors that come into play when you skate in Toronto. The Islanders have 15 Canadians on the team, and eight are from the province of Ontario. Six of those players grew up a hop, skip and a jump from Air Canada Centre, with family living anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour-and-a-half away.
So playing the Leafs is a big deal. It’s taken me three seasons to realize what it actually means for John Tavares, Casey Cizikas, Ryan Strome, Josh Bailey, Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech to play in their home city. But I’m starting to get a clearer picture.
When the Isles go to Detroit, I’m always really excited. Playing at The Joe means I get a chance to see the team I used to cover and the wonderful people still working in Detroit. It also means I get to hang out with my parents and my brother. I love spending the night in my childhood bedroom and having a nice home cooked meal with the family. But it’s not a relaxing trip. Everyone wants to see you, everyone wants to come to the game and you have to balance it all while trying to work.
Finding the perfect balance is even tougher for the players. Yes, they love playing against the team they grew up watching. It’s exciting to have your family and friends come to the game, but it can be stressful too. The players have a job to do and they have to juggle all the outside distractions while playing hockey.
Just to give you an idea of how much they have to handle:
As soon as we touched down in Toronto Monday, all of the hometown guys hopped in cars and scattered to their hometowns. Strome was smiling ear to ear on the plane. He couldn’t wait to have dinner with his family.
But on game day, things get really hectic. Each of the Isles players from the Toronto area are expecting 40 or more people at the game on Tuesday.
When Tavares played for the first time at Air Canada Centre with the Isles, there were close to 100 of his friends and family in the building. After that game, he spent every extra second he had, before the team left the arena, hugging and chatting with them all.
Strome told me that after every game in Toronto he has almost 100 text messages and it takes him hours to respond to them all. He understands how special the experience is for his whole group, but he’s sometimes overwhelmed after the game trying to say hi to everyone.
Playing 60 minutes of hockey is draining; tack on the family pressure, and when Ontario guys leave Toronto, they have very little left in the tank.
Even though Tavares, Bailey, Strome and Cizikas have played games in Toronto for years, they still step on the plane with a little extra pep when the team is headed to the 416. But this is the first time Pelech will play in Toronto as an NHLer. He has a ton of people coming to the game to support him and is excited, not nervous, to step out onto the ice..
Hopefully, the Ontario players rise to the occasion and score some big goals to help the Islanders win. That would make looking at the standings even more exciting.