TODAY'S PAPER
35° Good Morning
35° Good Morning
SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Barry Trotz not planning any big speeches for Islanders' biggest game

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz speaks with his

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz speaks with his staff during a timeout against the Lightning during the third period in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on Wednesday in Edmonton, Alberta. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

Hey, no pressure, guys. It’s just the biggest game the Islanders have played in 36 years, when the only player on the ice for them this month who was alive at the time was Andy Greene.

The last time they reached the conference finals, in 1993, they fell behind 3-0 to the Canadiens, won one game to save face, then bowed out in five to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

So to find a game as potentially impactful as Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning on Sunday, in which the Islanders can tie the series at 2-2, one must go back to the 1984 Cup Final against the Oilers.

The Islanders lost the first game, won the second, then were outscored 19-6 in losing three in a row and seeing the Oilers parade the Cup around Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton.

Now they are back in Edmonton, this time at Rogers Place, a neutral site absent fans, which makes for a strange and unpredictable dynamic.

But to this point, the Islanders have aced the unprecedented circumstances, bonding while sequestered for seven weeks in Canada and about to play their 21st game, counting an exhibition against the Rangers.

That is more than a quarter of a regular season worth of action. So if they did not get along, by now they would have turned on one another when the going got tough.

And tough it got when they lost their first two to Tampa Bay, first in an 8-2 rout, then with 8.8 seconds left in regulation in Game 2, followed by blowing a two-goal third-period lead in Game 3 before recovering late.

On Saturday, I asked Ryan Pulock whether perhaps being away from fans, friends, relatives and pesky journalists has helped keep the team focused on the task at hand, especially in difficult times.

"It’s hard to say," he said. "Obviously, in these circumstances, it’s different; it’s different for everyone. I think being all together, it kind of has brought us closer as a team, hanging out with each other every day.

"But there’s negatives to it, as well, guys being away from their families and the sacrifices they’re making with that to be here. But I think for us, we’re a tight-knit group and we all get along so well, so it’s really worked well for us to have that time together away from the rink. I think it’s helped build our game on the ice."

In the immediate aftermath of that blowout defeat in Game 1, the Islanders were reluctant to blame the quick, 48-hour turnaround after winning Game 7 against the Flyers in Toronto, then flying cross-continent to Edmonton.

But coach Barry Trotz has acknowledged in recent days how difficult that spot was, and over the past two games, the Islanders have proven it was an aberration and they can stick with the favored Lightning.

Games 2 and 3 were toss-ups decided late, so late that according to the NHL. it was the ninth time in history that a playoff series had the game-winner scored in the last four minutes of regulation in consecutive games.

The Islanders certainly have made things interesting for their fans and for fans of the league more broadly.

These conference finals are without any Original Six franchises or traditional television draws, and because of the unique timing, on Sunday the Islanders will go head to head with the first full day of the NFL season.

But for those of us who follow these things, and even more so for those directly involved, it does not get any bigger than this. (C’mon, people, it’s certainly bigger than Jets versus Bills in Week 1, is it not?)

Trotz said his players know that, so he is not big on rah-rah pregame speeches at this stage.

"I think you get to this point, there’s not a lot of motivation, it’s just going over details," he said Saturday. "We’ve played, this will be I think Game 21 for us in this bubble or whatever, or the three bubbles we’ve been in (including two hotels in Toronto). So you can’t come in with a motivational speech 21 times.

"Sometimes it’s got to fall on the group. Sometimes it falls on your systematic play and reminders. I think for the most part, it’s understanding they’re motivated. I don’t think there’s any reason to motivate guys right now.

"If they’re not motivated now, we have no chance to win, and that’s not the case with this group."

In other words: It’s big.

New York Sports