Everyone in and around the NHL understands the reality of the calendar and the fact that the Stanley Cup horizon shimmers far in the distance — nearly halfway through a year that won’t even begin for another 2 ½ months.
But that does not lessen the challenge for the Islanders, who began their 2021-22 journey — and their 13-game, five-week, season-opening road trip — on Thursday night against the Hurricanes in Raleigh, North Carolina, with an effort that all but screamed, "mid-October."
It is not going to be easy to maintain focus and motivation through the back-to-normal slog of a regular season, not when you are a team that has been to consecutive NHL semifinals and for which that no longer will suffice.
But here we are, and the point was driven home with a symbolic wrinkle early in the Islanders’ 6-3 opening night loss. For no matter how long this season will be, it will be two minutes and seven seconds longer than it might have been.
That is because the Islanders’ very first goal, by Mathew Barzal, was scored 7:23 into the game, but it was not credited until 2:07 later, when a stoppage allowed for a replay that showed the puck crossed the goal line.
How weird was that? So weird that given a chance to relive those two minutes, the Hurricanes also scored, tying the game on a tally by Andrei Svechnikov.
The Islanders’ performance was all over the map from there. The highlight was when they got within a goal at 4-3 after two periods when Anders Lee scored in his first game since severely injuring his right knee last March.
It was a sloppy, loose, generally entertaining evening, the sort of game that abounds in autumn but is not seen much in spring. The Islanders did not do enough to earn a win.
Afterward, much grumpiness ensued. "It’s just one of those nights where you’re facing a good team," Lee said. "They’re going to capitalize."
Coach Barry Trotz said he felt like the Islanders still were in it at 4-3 when an offensive zone penalty by Oliver Wahlstrom set up a power play score by Teuvo Teravainen.
"Overall, I didn’t think we had enough guys on their ‘A’ game," Trotz said.
Again, this will be part of the trick for the Islanders. They clearly are one of the best 16 teams in the NHL, but they must pay enough attention during the dog days to make it into the playoff field.
No one around the team is going to sweat finishing first overall in points or even first in the division. The idea is to get to the postseason and get there reasonably healthy.
Remember the 1979-80 Islanders, the franchise’s first Cup champions? Their 91 regular-season points were the fewest the team had totaled in five years.
ESPN analyst Barry Melrose, who this week picked the Islanders to win the Cup, made a point of saying they are built for the playoffs and probably will not be among the regular-season points leaders.
Trotz and his players have not avoided talking about the high bar that has been set for them —both internally and externally.
"It’s knowledge of what you have in the room," Trotz said on Wednesday. "But I’ve never really shied away from expectations, no matter what the group is."
The problem is the process of meeting expectations will not truly begin until April. There are many plane rides, hotel rooms and hockey games between here and there.
"I just say we want to get to the playoffs and get in that mix, as I always say, because it’s so darn hard to do that," Trotz said. "Once we get into that mix, I think we have a good hockey team and can do some damage."
He added, "Words are very, very cheap and light. We’ve just got to start the process of playing 82 games, getting to the playoffs and then, you know, taking it one step at a time. If you look too far away you’ll die a quick death, and I’m not into that. I want to play for a long time."
Play for a long time he will. The schedule demands it. The question is: How long?