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Islanders' defense has Penguins on thin ice

New York Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock skates with

New York Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock skates with the puck during hockey practice at Northwell Health Ice Center on Monday, April 8, 2019. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

PITTSBURGH – The adage about defense winning championships is most commonly associated with football in general and Bear Bryant in particular, but might it apply in hockey, too?

If the Islanders hope to win their fifth Stanley Cup and first since 1983, they likely will have to test that notion.

As their fans have known all season and the rest of North America has learned during their first-round playoff series against the high-powered Penguins, their success is based on flummoxing offenses.

They have been radically better at it under coach Barry Trotz than they were last season, and they only raised their level through three games against the Penguins, taking a 3-0 series lead into Game 4 here Tuesday night.

“We have to give the Islanders a lot of credit,” the Penguins’ Patric Hornqvist said after the morning skate. “They defend really hard and they have five guys in front of their net.”

That has been the plan: A stifling, six-man approach that starts with defensive-minded forwards (especially the line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck), includes a solid corps of defensemen (especially Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock) and is backed by goaltender Robin Lehner.

The net result is a team that has the rest of the league pretty sure it wants no part of the Islanders in the second round and perhaps beyond.

“They’re stingy,” said Butch Goring, an MSG analyst and once upon a time a top-notch two-way forward for the Islanders. “They’re not making a lot of mistakes. They’re not giving the opposition any time and space, and right now they’re being very opportunistic [on offense].

“They’re never going to score five, six goals; that’s not their DNA. But they have the patience to try and win 2-1 hockey games and they’re comfortable doing it. This is a team that I don’t think anybody wants to play.

“Nobody’s playing better defensively than the Islanders . . . They hang in there, they don’t go away, they don’t seem to get deflated in any way, shape or form. They’ve gained an awful lot of respect around the league, and more importantly, I don’t think anybody’s really anxious to play these guys.”

Goring compared the Islanders to last season’s Golden Knights, who advanced to the Cup Final as an expansion team before falling to Trotz’s Capitals in five games.

“That’s a team that came in, worked hard, were relentless with their checking, and really when you look at what they did and what the Islanders are doing, it’s very, very similar,” Goring said.

Adage or not, there have been football teams with elite offenses that have won championships, as there have been in hockey. But the 2018-19 Islanders will not be one of those if they go all the way.

“I just think if you play the right way, you win different ways,” Trotz said. “You play to your identity. What you do is what you do, and if you do it better than the other team, you’re going to have success.

“There’s no formula. If you look across time, especially in the National Hockey League, all kinds of teams have won.”

Captain Anders Lee was a star quarterback in high school in Minnesota. So I asked him whether the “defense wins championships” thing translates to his current sport.

“I think it matters,” he said. “I think it’s tougher and tougher to score goals the longer you play, and when you have a defense that can play stingy, I think it makes it that much more difficult.

“You still have to be able to put the puck in the net, but in hockey it’s tough to win without it.”

The Islanders have been winning with it, and potential future opponents are watching, and presumably worrying.


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