The New York Islanders know all about the “difficult” and the “impossible.”
While constructing a 103-point regular season record, they surpassed weekly challenges throughout the 82-game marathon. Cynics waited for them to fold; but they never did.
As coach Barry Trotz often said, “We bent but we never broke!”
And now that they are competing for the Stanley Cup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, many observers believe that a first-round victory would, in fact, rank in the “Impossible” realm.
Bring on the Penguins! The Isles-Pens series begins Wednesday on MSG+. Coverage starts at 6:30 PM.
I mean, how do you beat Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?
The Nassaumen — who’ll open the best-of-seven series at the Coliseum — have spent the last seven months either fooling people, fooling their foes or — who knows? — maybe even fooling themselves. But they are for real and Trotz is happy to have them.
“This is a special group,” said Trotz. “They play for each other; they follow the system and, well, I’m happy to be their coach.”
In this case, conjecture is for the birds; what matters is that when a club conquers an 82-game marathon and comes darn close to finishing first in its division, there’s nothing flukey about the Islanders.
Ah, but here’s the rub; there’s nothing fictional about their opponents; this Pittsburgh outfit — sprinkled with Stanley Cup-winners — is paced by two of the more outstanding performers in the National Hockey League’s 102-year history.
Still in their respective primes, Crosby and Malkin comprise a Murderers Row among scorers. What’s more they’re aided and abetted by one of the more clutch-able forwards this side of Steven Stamkos, the irrepressible Phil Kessel.
Their goaltender, Matt Murray, already boasts Cup rings while defenseman Kris Letting still possesses Norris Trophy moves. Ergo: Man, oh, man, those flightless birds are loaded!
So, how can the Trotz-ers possibly match up against this icy dreadnought from Pennsylvania? Here’s how:
NETMINDERS: Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, this year’s Gold Dust Twins of Goaltending, each has enjoyed a career year. They even combined for the Jennings Trophy. Forget about numbers; this pair stole games galore. Because they often hermetically sealed the Isles nets, the club was able to deliver playoff style checking throughout the campaign.
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Greiss, six years older than Lehner, spearheaded the Nassaumen to a first-round playoff series win three years ago. Lehner was in a pair of playoff games for Ottawa in the 2013 postseason. All indications are that Trotz will start Robin in Game 1.
A two-time Cup-winner, Pitt’s stopper, Matt Murray, has smartly rebounded from a shaky first half of the season. Still, he’s been there and done that. If, somehow, he doesn’t, coach Mike Sullivan will summon Casey DeSmith from the puck-stoppers bullpen.
DEFENSE: If you didn’t know better you might think it was a joke: A year ago, the Nassaumen iced a defense that could be equated with a giant sieve-on-ice. The league-worst 293 goals against was a core-stunner. This year, the blue line brigade helped reverse the arithmetic; and how! The Jennings Trophy says it all.
Remarkably, it’s the same defending crew, led by the vastly improved Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. Ryan Pulock is galloping toward stardom while Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield and Devon Toews have aptly combined to make things easier for the goalies. Recovered from a long injury sabbatical, experienced Thomas Hickey offers depth.
The Pens’ blue line corps is battle-tested and certainly not to be taken lightly. The names — after Letang — speak to their worthiness: Olli Maatta, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbrandson, Justin Schultz and Brian Dumoulin know what it’s all about. There’s not a slouch in the lot.
OFFENSE: The Islanders don’t score a lot. Period! That’s their bete noir and could do them in unless the Mathew Barzal–Anders Lee–Jordan Eberle trio can match the Crosby-Malkin machine’s firepower. Ditto for hotshot Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and whoever Trotz chooses to fill out the line. A series-breaker could be the “Best Fourth Line In The League.” If Cal Clutterbuck–Matt Martin–Casey Cizikas do their thing, they could drive the Pens nuts.
Trotz is thankful that the very reliable Valtteri Filppula is healthy and that his experienced pal, Leo Komarov, manages to drive the Pens to distraction. Heading into their first NHL playoff, Anthony Beauvillier and Michael Dal Colle could be secret weapons.
Behind the Crosby-Malkin-Kessel contingent, coach Sullivan has plenty of solid bench strength. Playoff-hardened vets Jake Guentzel, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen remain ever-dangerous. But it will come down to Sidney-Geno and how well Trotz & Co. can defuse them.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Isles power play repair man has worked overtime with minimal results. Maybe the Law of Averages will work in its favor. On the other hand, penalty-killers have done well in the second half of the season. Respecting Pitt’s PP, Trotz will urge his skaters to avoid taking unnecessary penalties. Sullivan’s penalty-killers ranked 17th, which is nothing to brag about.
INTANGIBLES: The series could come down to Barry’s brainstorming outwitting Mike’s maneuvers. Also, the Isles stamping their insatiable will on the perhaps — perhaps — jaded Penguins.
X-FACTOR: My buddy, Rob Taub, offers two compelling names. For New York, the irrepressible Cizikas who enjoyed his first 20-goal season. For Pitt, Guentzel. Suffice to say, he’s the Cizikas of Western Pennsylvania.
PREDICTION: The impossible takes a little longer. Isles in seven!
[Coverage of Game 1 Begins at 6:30 PM Wednesday on MSG+ and MSG GO]