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For the Islanders, what a long, strange trip it's been to reach conference finals

Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield celebrates his goal against

Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield celebrates his goal against the Flyers with teammates during first-period NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference playoff action in Toronto on Saturday. Credit: AP/Frank Gunn

None of the four remaining teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs has taken a more circuitous path than the Islanders to the conference finals in Edmonton.

Back in normal times, they still were playing home games in two arenas, Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic pause, which hit when they were about 2,500 miles from home in Calgary.

Then they entered the Toronto bubble, outlasted the other low seeds as the only qualifying-round survivor and had to change hotels during their stay.

Then they were taken to a seventh game by the Flyers in the second round on Saturday night, forcing them to fly across Canada on Sunday for Game 1 of the conference finals on Monday night.

Their opponents, the Lightning, beat the Bruins in five and got to Edmonton on Saturday.

Throw in the wrinkles every team has faced, including unpredictable game and practice times, and more serious matters like the two-day pause to recognize social injustice and . . . well, it’s been an interesting ride.

That is why many in hockey have been saying that if the winner of this year’s Cup should have an asterisk in the history books, it should be to recognize a more difficult achievement than most, not a lesser one.

But as true as all that is, it also is true that perspective is required here, and Islanders coach Barry Trotz provided it just before the team left Toronto on Sunday.

Sure, being isolated from one’s family and restricted to hotels, practice rinks and games is a burden. But in the bigger picture, it is not much of a burden at all.

“I always look at what we’re doing, and we’re playing a game in a bubble for entertainment,” Trotz said. “Guys are competitive, but there are real warriors out there, servicepeople who don’t see their families for months, and they don’t have the constant contact and all that.

“Now, being in a bubble it’s sort of a different perspective on the military personnel that are overseas and all that and don’t see their family and are serving our country.”

Trotz said he also has gained a new appreciation for the work done by others in hockey — even referees.

He said that when he refereed scrimmages, “I was trying to avoid pucks and people and all that, and I have a total new perspective for the people who work our games.”

For all the strangeness, the Islanders still have a job to do, and next on their agenda is a chance to reach their first Cup Final since 1984.

By coincidence, the last three games of that year’s five-game loss to the Oilers also were in Edmonton.

Late Monday morning, Trotz praised the setup in his new environment, including the NHL’s safety protocols.

“We were saying that we’ll probably be the uncomfortable ones when we have to leave the bubble at some point when this is all done,” he said. “But the setup is great. The arena is state-of-the-art, convenience is good, and for us it’s really good, because of the quick turnaround.

“I still haven’t found everything. We just got here last night, so trying to find where the meal rooms are and that. Like I said to my staff, every time I’m supposed to turn right, I’m turning left because we’re changing hotels and it’s a different setup.”

After dealing with every detour in its path to this point, Trotz is confident his team can handle it after six weeks of the bubble “grind,” as he called it.

“This team has accepted everything that’s been thrown at us, from scheduling to when we play to all that stuff,” he said. “This is the new normal, and we’ll deal with it.”

New York Sports