We have been hearing, talking, reading and writing about the Islanders’ character under coach Barry Trotz for two full seasons now, and it mostly has been true.
But we are about to witness the ultimate test of it, because on Wednesday night they suffered what until proven otherwise must be considered a devastating and perhaps insurmountable blow.
They rebounded from a Game 1 rout against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, played mostly well, then saw Nikita Kucherov score with 8.8 seconds left in regulation time for a 2-1 loss and a 2-0 series deficit.
Game 3 is Friday night in Edmonton.
“We’ve lost in different ways that have punched us in the stomach a few times in the last series [against the Flyers],” Trotz said. “This one’s a little bit of a shot to the gut. Every time we’ve done that, we’ve gotten up.”
Trouble is, the Lightning are the best team the Islanders have faced and they now must beat them four times in five games to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1984.
Impossible? No. Improbable? Yes.
The Lightning played much of the game with only nine forwards, and the Islanders had the verve they lacked in that 8-2 loss on Monday 48 hours after beating the Flyers in Game 7, then traveling across Canada.
But the Tampa Bay goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, might be the best in the league, and their stars find a way to shine at the right times. Victor Hedman and Kucherov are two of them, and they scored the two Lightning goals.
The Islanders caused plenty of their own problems, too, failing to score on a five-minute power play and later on a 38-second two-man-advantage.
They also did not get any breaks from the officials.
The first Tampa Bay goal was set up by an icing call that appeared not to be icing because the Lightning’s Kevin Shattenkirk touched the puck on its way down the ice.
And after Alex Killorn was kicked out of the game for boarding Brock Nelson, Barclay Goodrow cross-checked Nelson in the back of the head – apparently targeting him because of the earlier injury – and was not penalized.
“You have to play through it,” Trotz said of the officiating. “It’s playoff hockey. We win the faceoff [after the questionable icing], we’re not even talking about it. Those are moments where you just fight through it.”
Trotz made the right decision going back to Semyon Varlamov in goal after Thomas Greiss gave up three goals in Game 1 and Varlamov allowed five in relief.
But even that was an example of what the Islanders are up against. Varlamov was good but not perfect, which he might have to be because of the star in the opposite net.
In short, the Lightning are the better team, and the Islanders had a chance to put a scare into them by tying the series but failed to do so. And here we are.
“After a blowout loss, I just liked our response as a group,” said Matt Martin, who scored the only Islanders goal. “We came out and played the right way for 60 minutes. When you come out and have four lines rolling and everybody’s buying in and doing what it takes to win games, sometimes you live with the result.
“But obviously we need results right now. We need to find a way to win hockey games.”
Said Josh Bailey, “It’s no time to get down. There are a lot of teams out there that would like to be in our spot right now. I think you have to turn the page like we’ve done all playoffs.”
Easy to say, difficult to do.
“The first game wasn’t us,” Trotz said. “That was a team that was tired. Today we got our energy back, and we’ll be ready for the next game. This group has a lot of character and a lot of fight in them.”
So we have heard. Now we will see.