The night began in a truly inspiring way, with a clip on the Barclays Center video screen showing Al Arbour telling a group of latter-day Islanders some years ago, “Work hard, and enjoy every minute of it.” It ended with the late coach’s former team needing to follow some more of his old advice: “One game at a time, one shift at a time.”
That is what these Islanders must do, after losing a game that they had just about won and after falling behind in a series for the first time this postseason. All they can do is put the sour taste of Game 3 behind them, focus on the first shift in Game 4 Friday and take it from there.
“It hurts now,” said Josh Bailey, who made an almost storybook comeback from an upper body injury with two goals. “We played hard and I think we should have won this game. It hurts, but at the same time, you’re not going to win every game in the playoffs. You’re going to have these times when you have to overcome adversity. Next game will be one of those times for sure.”
Allowing Nikita Kucherov to score the tying goal with only 38.4 seconds left in the third period really stung. A first overtime loss this postseason — 5-4, on Brian Boyle’s goal — rubbed it in even more. But that is part of the playoffs. The Islanders won a game just like that right here at Barclays Center last Sunday to advance for the first time in 23 years. So this is what they have to live with, now that they are way beyond the happy-to-be-here phase and glad-we-finally-won-a-series stage.
There still is something unique about this Islanders team, which, before Tuesday night was the only squad in the Eastern Conference that never had ended a day in this postseason trailing in a series. Still, there is something in the air for a franchise that entered Tuesday night (by my unofficial count) 42-31 all-time in May playoff games — a tradition that began 41 years ago, when they twice rebounded to tie a series after trailing 3-0, winning one of them.
That is when Arbour started preaching the disciplined patience and hope that became the franchise’s trademark, telling his players to take one game at a time, one shift at a time. They revive that motif Friday in Game 4.
“It’s a game we should have had, obviously,” John Tavares said. “We’ve got to lock it down there in the last minute. A lot of that is on me. We’ve just got to stay with it. Tight series, two good teams. I liked the way we played tonight, we did a lot of good things, a lot of guys stepped up. We’ve just to keep the puck out of our net a little more, obviously.”
Aside from Tavares, one of the greatest players in the world, nothing really stands out about the Islanders. And that in itself is what makes them stand out. They have been getting it done, one way or another. If it is not Alan Quine coming up from Bridgeport and turning a playoff series, it is Shane Prince, coming out of obscurity and scoring two goals to set the tone in this series. On Tuesday night, it was Bailey, who was in for his experience.
Ultimately, it was a bitter experience for the whole team. But that is part of playoff hockey. After the Islanders broke the 23-year series drought they easily could have pulled out one of several clichés, saying that this series was “gravy” or “icing” or “house money.” Except the Islanders are playing for real money now, with an honest shot at moving even further in the playoffs.
“We knew a little adversity would come eventually,” Prince said. “It’s a game we should have won tonight, but we’ve got to put it behind us.”
They’ve got to work hard and enjoy every minute, one minute at a time.