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Islanders have made best of bad situation with fun playoff run, and it's not over yet

The Islanders leave the ice after their 4-1

The Islanders leave the ice after their 4-1 defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on September 13, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

You know what Monday likely would have meant for the Islanders in normal times?

Two words: training camp.

Yup, in a non-COVID-19 world, camp would have opened this very week, which is a sobering thought. (I last covered a hockey camp with the Rangers in Glens Falls in 1991. It was not exciting.)

Instead, the Islanders are in Edmonton, preparing for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Lightning on Tuesday, with the series winner facing Dallas in the Stanley Cup Final.

Why bring this up now? Only to put into perspective the Islanders’ predicament as they face a 3-1 series deficit.

Of course, the Islanders and their fans, like all decent people, would have preferred it if the pandemic had never happened. That is not the point here.

The point is that as the league itself did in finding a way to resume play safely last month, the Islanders have made the best of a bad situation.

At the time the NHL paused on March 12, they were in an 0-3-4 slump and on a non-playoff trajectory that had them clinging to one of 16 berths based on points percentage.

Assuming they did not rally down the stretch, their season could well have ended on April 4. But here they are, having given fans six-plus weeks of entertainment while further validating that the franchise is in a good place moving forward.

And now they have a chance to do something even more special, with nothing left to lose against a seemingly superior opponent they now must beat three times in a row to avoid elimination.

"There are 27 teams and 700 players that would love to be in this position, and our guys have not quit," coach Barry Trotz said on Monday. "I know this team. They’ve given everything they have."

Best not to bet the college fund on the Islanders pulling this off, but stranger things have happened.

The NHL has had 29 teams come back from 3-1 deficits in best-of-seven series, more than in Major League Baseball and the NBA combined.

The Islanders did it in 1975 against the Penguins — after trailing 3-0 — and in 1987 against the Capitals.

The latter famously ended with the "Easter Epic," which the Islanders won at 8:47 of the fourth overtime on a goal by Pat LaFontaine.

The play-by-play man for ESPN’s telecast was Mike "Doc" Emrick, who is calling the current series for NBC.

An omen, perhaps? Probably not. But it is fun to think such thoughts, which is why this run has been so enjoyable despite the oddness of two teams from the Eastern U.S. playing in a mostly empty arena in Edmonton.

And again: It is not over yet. Trotz opened the door to the possibility of shuffling his line combinations for Game 5, and he ought to.

But there is no reason to doubt these Islanders’ resiliency and fortitude. They have won three postseason series, a first for the franchise in 36 years, amid all the surrounding uncertainty and disruption.

Now they face their greatest test yet. This is no time to ease up. These situations do not come along often.

"It’s just keeping that mood going, getting everyone going and looking forward to the next opportunity," Anders Lee said. "This ride, this playoff run we’ve had, there’s been a ton of those, exciting games and chances to do something really special."

Said Mathew Barzal: "I think just as a competitor you want to stay in the fight . . . We’re not going to go away lightly here. Personally, this is exactly where I want to be and exactly where we want to be. Maybe not down 3-1, but in the Eastern Conference finals. What an opportunity for our group."

So yes, losing this series would be a missed chance and a big disappointment, as it should be. But the ride already has been its own reward.

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