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Have Islanders benefited from playing and living in NHL bubbles during playoff run?

Ryan Pulock #6 of the Islanders is congratulated

Ryan Pulock #6 of the Islanders is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on September 15, 2020 in Edmonton. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

No matter the result of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night, the atmosphere can not match what might have been in a non-COVID-19 world.

In that alternate universe, the lower-seeded Islanders would have tried to stay alive against the Lightning at a raucous Nassau Coliseum.

I wrote the same thing before Game 6 against the Flyers in the second round, but the increased stakes only make it truer against Tampa Bay.

An empty Rogers Place in Edmonton is no match for the Barn.

That being said, it is fair to wonder whether the virus-mandated "bubbles" in which the Islanders have lived since late July are a net positive in their deepest playoff run since 1984.

True, the other teams that reached the conference finals had similar circumstances, but the Islanders were the only ones that had to survive the qualifying round.

So Thursday night is their franchise-record 22nd postseason game, beginning Aug. 1, plus an exhibition against the Rangers in late July.

That is a grueling schedule under any circumstances, given the frequency of games and intensity of playoff hockey. In normal times, the degree of difficulty would have been increased by the toll playoff travel takes.

Washington and Philadelphia would have been relatively easy trips, but trips they are. As it is, the Islanders have made only one — from Toronto to Edmonton before Game 1 against the Lightning. And they lost, 8-2.

When bubble-dwellers are asked about this, most caution life in relative isolation has been its own psychological grind. But no one denies there are benefits to staying put.

"Oh, sure, absolutely, that part of the non-travel is good," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. "At the same time, it’s the same for both teams, the freshness.

"It takes a little bit of the edge off of the travel, because the travel is part of the grind. But the bubble is not part of the grind in any other year, so that’s the difference, I think. That’s the tradeoff right now."

NBC analyst Ed Olczyk began the playoffs outside the bubble but has been in Edmonton for three weeks.

He prefaced his comments by saying the hockey world understands there are bigger problems outside in the "real world," and that the goal simply is to entertain and crown a champion.

But he did acknowledge that on one hand, "There’s a lot of psychological drain on this for everybody involved in here, not just the players, but the coaches, trainers."

And on the other hand, "It’s unique because you are playing a lot of hockey, but you’re just walking 400 yards to the rink and you walk home [to the hotel] and you have food there and so really, you’re focused in on what you’ve got to do, and all you’ve got to do is play hockey and rest up and put ice on the bumps and bruises and go play."

Bubble life is different for every player. Four Islanders have welcomed baby daughters since the beginning of March. So there have been personal sacrifices.

But in terms of the physical grind, and in the interests of team bonding, there are positives that perhaps helped the Islanders stick around.

"You go back to the hotel, check in with the family, have your meals and then you’re back together with the boys again, whether it’s hanging out in small groups, big groups, depends on the night," Anders Lee said.

"It’s actually been a really special time. I don’t think we’re ever going to have an opportunity like this to spend this much time with our teammates. I think we’ve all really soaked it in and taken it all as far as we can and really enjoyed this time with each other.

"I think that translates for all the teams that are here to pretty good hockey on the ice."

New York Sports