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SportsColumnistsAndrew Gross

There's reason to believe the Islanders can achieve much more

Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov celebrates his shutout win

Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov celebrates his shutout win and series victory with teammates Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle after defeating the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the playoffs in Toronto on Aug. 20, 2020.  Credit: AP/Nathan Denette

When Lou Lamoriello became the Islanders’ boss 27 months ago, he joined a franchise that had advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once since 1993. Those who thought they knew his thinking said he was willing to do so because he saw the foundation in place to win.

To be clear, knowing exactly what Lamoriello is really thinking is difficult, given that he lets virtually no one in on the secret. But in an NHL career that began with the Devils in 1987, he has shown that he is not a believer in rebuilding jobs. Winning now is always the goal.

Which is a long way to go to make this point: Why not the Islanders? Why not now?

Why can’t they advance past the Flyers in a second-round series that opens Monday night in Toronto and reach the conference finals for the first time since 1993? And why can’t they make it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984, or even lift the Cup for the first time since 1983?

To the why, why, whys, there surely are cautionary whoa, whoa, whoas.

But eight teams remain in the NHL playoffs out of the 24 that participated in the league’s return-to-play format after the regular season came to a premature end on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the Islanders don’t top the list of Cup favorites among the eight left skating, the way they’ve played through their first nine postseason games — a four-game win over the Panthers in a best-of-five qualifying series and a five-game win over the Capitals in the best-of-seven first round — argues they should be able to play with any of the teams if they are playing at their best.

They sorely frustrated the Capitals — who in Islanders coach Barry Trotz’s estimation have the greatest goal-scorer ever in Alex Ovechkin — with their five-on-five structure and forechecking. By the end, Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom conceded the truth.

“I think over these five games, I think they wanted it more than us,” said Backstrom, who returned in Game 5 after being knocked into concussion protocol on a hit from Anders Lee in Game 1. “You could see that overall and they were more disciplined than us, too.”

Not only does all of that have to continue for the Islanders, but they must improve upon it. That includes not only the facets of their game that were so superior in the first round but the parts of their game — namely special teams — that were not as consistent.

“I think both sides are going to be looking to improve upon where they stand currently and demand more from one another and expect to raise our game,” Lee said. “I think every round gets that much tougher. The intensity, the desperation, all those things we talk about all the time. They all increase as you move on. I think we’re going to have the same sentiment in that regard. It’s just continuing to build on the game that we play and when we play it the right way, how successful we are at it. It’s really just sticking to that and improving on the little things.”

Those who are skeptical about the Islanders as a true Cup contender can point to their 2-7-4 stumble into the season’s pause, part of a larger stretch of inconsistent hockey dating to the conclusion of their franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2) on Nov. 23. Had the season not been paused, had only 16 teams and not 24 been invited to the postseason, the Islanders might not have been included.

That’s all immaterial. The Islanders are here and that stretch of bad hockey now seems as if it were played in a different season.

The other three teams remaining in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins and Lightning along with the Flyers, have all looked like strong Cup contenders at different points this season. Vegas and Colorado look elite in the West.

But if the Islanders adhere to their proven style of play, they can grind teams down into the 2-1, 3-2 games they are so comfortable in playing.

The Islanders already are the last team standing in one regard: the last alive of the seven assigned to the Fairmont Royal York in the Toronto bubble. So Saturday was moving day as the Islanders joined the Flyers, Bruins and Lightning at Hotel X.

They belong among the East’s final four.

There’s reason to believe they can achieve way more than that.

New York Sports