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Islanders finding ways to keep NHL bubble life fun

Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov celebrates his shutout win

Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov celebrates his shutout win and series victory with teammates Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle after defeating the Washington Capitals in Game 5 of the playoffs in Toronto on Aug. 20, 2020.  Credit: AP/Nathan Denette

Fans, journalists and television analysts have spent a month trying to assess the psychological state of NHL and NBA players trapped in comfy but isolating “bubbles” designed to keep them safe from the COVID-19 virus.

It is a valid discussion topic because the teams that make it to the finish line in early autumn likely will be both talented and mentally strong.

They also will be the ones who best find a way to get along amid the three months of being together.

So far, the Islanders have checked all the boxes, at least by the available evidence.

They are 7-2 in Toronto entering Game 1 of their second-round series against the Flyers on Monday night, and seem to be effectively balancing bonding and working.

When a reporter asked coach Barry Trotz on Saturday about the “mental wear” of bubble life, Trotz gave a quizzical look before answering.

“I’m reading a lot of stuff [about that], but our group is having fun,” he said. “There’s the odd time you miss some of your families and all that, but for the most part the guys understand and the wives understand with our group that this is something you have to accept if you want to have success.

“There’s going to be commitment on both sides, and so we understood that going in and I think the players are doing a really good job of having fun, staying together and focusing on what needs to be focused on. This is a great opportunity for the teams that are left, and I think the families, the players, understand that.

“So it seems like a long time, but if you really look at it in the big picture, it’s not that long.”

Trotz and his staff have tried not to overschedule and trust a mostly veteran group to time-manage themselves.

One early activity was a ping-pong tournament – won by Jean-Gabriel Pageau – but there have been others.

“In the off time we’ve done a phenomenal job as a team of spending time with one another, getting each other out of our rooms, spending time hanging out,” captain Anders Lee said. “We’re all going through this together, so we can lean on one another in that regard and take our minds off of maybe some of the stuff that we miss.

“We miss our families. We miss home. You don’t have the freedom that you normally would. But at the same time, we have an incredible opportunity here and it’s so far been a fun journey to get to this point . . . We just have to lean on each other when those tougher times come, when you’re having one of those days.”

Lee, Jordan Eberle and Josh Bailey welcomed baby daughters in March. For Matt Martin, the bubble trip came at a more awkward time. His wife, Sydney, gave birth to a daughter, on July 14. Twelve days later, he was in Toronto.

“All the credit goes to my wife and I would imagine all the other wives around the league who are kind of holding down the fort right now and taking care of business back home,” Martin said on Monday, “because if they’re not in a good place and not kind of handling things for us, it would make our lives a lot harder in here.

“So I think for me personally it’s been an easier experience just because I know everything is good at home and everyone is rooting for us to go on a long run and win a Cup.”

After spending a month at the Royal York hotel watching every other team there get eliminated, the Isles got a change of scenery when they moved to Hotel X over the weekend to join the other three Toronto survivors.

The next goal is a more drastic change of scenery: The Flyers-Islanders winner will board a plane to Edmonton for the conference finals and, they hope, one more month of bonding.

New York Sports