One game at a time, one shift at a time.
That was the credo on which the Islanders were built. It was the direction that Al Arbour gave to his team during the 1975 playoffs, when it was down three games to none against the Penguins. The Islanders came back and won that series, advanced to the semifinals, went down 3-0 again to the Flyers and again came back to force a Game 7.
Most important at the moment, it is exactly what the current Islanders need to heed as they approach Game 3 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Wednesday. The deficit is different, the league is different, the world is vastly different than it was 44 years ago, but the advice is still as relevant. In fact, it is the only way they can get back into the second-round series against the Hurricanes.
Without realizing it, today’s Islanders used almost the exact same phrase that Arbour did.
“Just worry about your shift in the first period and go from there,” Barry Trotz said after practice at Northwell Health Ice Center Tuesday, with his team down 2-0 and heading on the road.
Casey Cizikas said in the locker room, “You’ve got to take it shift by shift. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to win your shift. It doesn’t matter who you’re out there against, you’re going to look across at the guy and you’re going to say, ‘I’m going to be better than you this shift.’ ”
Some things simply do not change. This is just as true in the Instagram era as it was in the days of Instamatic cameras: Don’t get caught up in the size of the job ahead, don’t try anything heroic. Just get on the ice, make the plays for however many seconds and get off. And keep doing that.
The echo is especially pertinent this season, with the Islanders embracing the franchise’s past by savoring their games at Nassau Coliseum (including two wins in two tries during the playoffs). Trotz and his players have spoken often about the legacy they have inherited, mostly implying the four Stanley Cups.
But the heritage really began in the playoffs of 1975. That is when the fledgling team put itself on the map. That is when the Islanders revealed themselves as something special. It is when they first made May their favorite month. It is when the team and Long Island really connected, forming a bond that has survived ever since. Chico Resch, the goaltending star that season, once told me, “It would make my head spin, how many people became hockey fans.”
The story of the defining moment has been told many times, once to me by then-captain Ed Westfall. He recalled that Arbour gathered the players on the ice at the practice rink after a loss in Game 3 against the Penguins and said, “If there’s one guy here who doesn’t think we can win this series, I want you to go in and take your stuff off and nothing will be said.” After every player remained, the coach went on to say, “One game at a time, one shift at a time.”
It sounds easier to do than it really is, when you are down by multiple games and feeling impatient about drawing even. “You can’t look at the big picture too much. You’ve got to just focus on the present,” Josh Bailey said on Tuesday. “We can’t win two games tomorrow night. We just have to focus on the first shift of the game and take it from there.”
Trotz’s Stanley Cup ring is proof that it can be done. He coached the Capitals out of a 2-0 home chasm in the first round last year and they went on to win it all. “From my past experience, when you’ve dug yourself a little bit of a hole and you dig yourselves out of that hole, I tell you what, you become a pretty strong team,” he said.
He knows what Arbour did, that to dream big you’ve got to start by thinking small.