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Islanders know what's at stake in Wednesday's Game 6 vs. Lightning

Matt Martin #17 of the Islanders and Luke

Matt Martin #17 of the Islanders and Luke Schenn #2 of the Tampa Bay Lightning fight during the second period in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Semifinals during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on June 21, 2021 in Tampa. Credit: Getty Images/Mike Carlson

All professional athletes have deep wells of pride, or they would not be professional athletes. But there are times those wells must be plumbed more deeply than others.

This is one of those times for the Islanders.

Look, the odds are against them beating the Lightning twice in a row to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. Tampa Bay has not lost consecutive playoff games since a first-round sweep by the Blue Jackets in 2019.

While it is not an impossible task, it is a formidable one. But there will be time for that discussion before a potential Game 7 on Friday.

The matter at hand is Wednesday night and only Wednesday night, when the Islanders must have a victory in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup semifinal to extend their season.

But it is about more than that. This proud, veteran group, which has produced the second-best three-season run in franchise history, cannot go out with anything like the mess they made in an 8-0 loss in Game 5 on Monday.

Not with the stakes this high, and not in what could be the final playoff game in the history of Nassau Coliseum. Fans would love to see a victory, but at minimum they deserve to see the spirited effort that Game 5 lacked.

There was some good news toward that end on Tuesday when the NHL fined but did not suspend Mathew Barzal, the team’s biggest star, for his cross-check of Jan Rutta on Monday.

That was the right call by the league, but you never know given the vagaries of its player safety policies.

So Barzal will be back, but it is unclear who his linemates will be or whether coach Barry Trotz will shake up a lineup that has gotten a little stale.

Specifically, it is time for him to give 21-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom a shot in hopes of a late spark.

But the biggest challenge for the Islanders in overcoming the embarrassment that was Game 5 will be psychological.

Trotz, Casey Cizikas and Jordan Eberle spoke to reporters about that on Tuesday after returning from Tampa and promised that there would be no issues in that area.

"You’re going to see a different team tomorrow night," Cizikas said, "and we’re excited to get back out there and prove we are a better team."

Cizikas balked at the notion – confirmed by oddsmakers – that the Islanders are the underdog in the series, now more than ever.

"We know we’re a good team," he said. "It doesn’t matter what anybody in the outside world says. We know we’re a good team and we believe in each other more than anybody."

Trotz sought to put the situation in perspective this way:

"If I would have said back before the season started we’d be down three games to two in a conference final, ‘Anybody in for that?’ Everybody would put up their hand," he said.

He added, "It’s, how much do you want to commit to have one shot to go to the Stanley Cup Final? How much are you willing to commit tomorrow?

"That’s really the message: ‘Go after it guys, because you only get so many cracks at this.’"

This is the last crack for the Coliseum, which has been a subplot of the Islanders’ franchise story for . . . well, forever, it seems.

It is possible the Islanders will be back for one last farewell this autumn, depending on when UBS Arena is ready to open and how long of a season-opening West Coast trip the NHL is willing to put the players through in October.

But this is it for the playoffs. The players owe it to themselves and their fans to make it count.

"You’ll get our best," Trotz said. "Whatever we’ve got left, you’re going to get our best."

Nothing less will do.

New York Sports