History on Islanders' side against Penguins

The Islanders celebrate a power-play goal by Mark

The Islanders celebrate a power-play goal by Mark Streit #2 at 8:59 of the first period against the Florida Panthers at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. (April 16, 2013) (Credit: Getty)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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You never know. That is the way the Islanders have to approach the daunting prospect of playing the fearsome, top-seeded Penguins in the playoffs starting Wednesday night. Coach Jack Capuano outlined the philosophy very simply after practice Monday: "One shift at a time."

Truth is, we do know. Long Islanders who have followed this sort of thing have seen it happen, and we remember the first time we heard that very phrase in a playoff context.

The Islanders were facing the daunting prospect of beating the Penguins after being down three games to none in a 1975 series. Coach Al Arbour outlined the philosophy very simply back then: "One game at a time, one shift at a time."

You can't relive the past and it is unhealthy to try. But tradition does have its value, and today that value is to convey how special the postseason is and always has been to the Islanders. Those who have witnessed it know what a big deal it will be for these new players and their fans to finally experience the whole show.

They should know that those Islanders came back to win that series in 1975, basically establishing an identity that still stands. Even when the team wasn't so hot, there always has been a feeling that there is something special about the blue-and-orange colors and that same old logo. Those are in bloom again, and it finally feels like a normal spring again on the Island.

Good for this generation, to see its superstar, John Tavares, have his chance to shine. Good for this wave, to hear a coach say the only way to accomplish something great is to do it in small chunks.

"For us, the way we have to prepare is the way we prepared all season: Win your shift, win your battles, elevate your battle level," Capuano said. "For me, it's 'when the puck drops, play your game.' It's about shift by shift."

Given enough good shifts, can the Islanders beat Sidney Crosby and the rest of the overwhelmingly talented Penguins? Probably not, but you never know. The impossible always has brought out the best in the Islanders, especially when Pittsburgh was involved.

Ed Westfall scored a goal late in the third period and Chico Resch shut out the Penguins on their own ice in that "one shift at a time" Game 7.

The Islanders dynasty might not have made it past two Stanley Cups if not for a blistering comeback from a two-goal deficit in the final 51/2 minutes of a climactic 1982 game against the Penguins. John Tonelli tied it with 2:21 left in regulation and won it in overtime at Nassau Coliseum.

Mario Lemieux and his 1993 Penguins were two-time defending champions and seemingly unbeatable, certainly by the likes of the Islanders, whose own star, Pierre Turgeon, was limited to a cameo appearance by a shoulder injury. Yet David Volek scored at 5:16 in overtime in Game 7, capping one of the Islanders' most stunning playoff victories -- and, to date, their last series win. If this one goes seven games, the finale will be two days short of the 20th anniversary.

Knowing that they are going to be part of that heritage is enough to give the current Islanders chills, and a warm feeling.

"I've been wanting to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs since I was 6 years old, and to get a chance to do that, and to play a pretty good hockey team, it means a lot to me personally," said Kyle Okposo, who left college early to sign with the Islanders in 2008 and never has been in an NHL playoff game.

"I went to high school with Jonny Toews," Okposo said of the Blackhawks' captain. "When he got handed the Cup a few years ago, that was something. I wanted that. I'm just excited to get this journey under way."

Long Islanders know how wonderful the journey can be, no matter where it ends. Here's hoping that these Islanders and their fans enjoy the ride, one shift at a time.