TODAY'S PAPER
Good Morning
Good Morning
SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Islanders deep in the Stanley Cup playoffs? It's beginning to feel possible after back-to-back wins

The Islanders celebrate their 3-2 victory against the

The Islanders celebrate their 3-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 30, 2020 in Toronto. Credit: Getty Images/Elsa

This is starting to seem very real now, more than a mere feel-good story featuring an often-overlooked franchise making modest postseason noise. This feels like a legitimate, perhaps fated chance to win a Stanley Cup.

What else can you make of the Islanders after they presented their latest evidence by defeating the Flyers, 3-2, on Sunday night in Game 4 of a second-round playoff series in Toronto?

They took a 3-1 series lead behind goaltender 1A, Thomas Greiss, after coach Barry Trotz made the bold decision to give Semyon Varlamov the night off.

Greiss merely was brilliant in his first start since . . . March 7! (And his first playoff start since 2016.)

“I thought the second period he was unbelievable,” Trotz said, “and in the third period he was the same.”

They won it with third-period goals by Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who arrived in a trade in February, and Brock Nelson, who scored his second of the night.

Now comes the hard part: Making this pay off, and that means finishing off the Flyers as efficiently as possible by eliminating them in Game 5 on Tuesday and prepping for a likely date with the Lightning in the conference finals.

The way the Lightning have been playing against the Bruins, that series could well be over on Monday, so it would behoove the Islanders to take care of their business, then prepare to decamp for Edmonton.

Trotz began laying the coach-speak groundwork when he said of Game 4, “In my opinion, that was the worst game that we’ve played to this point in the playoffs.”

The fact that the team is nine victories from a Cup for the first time since 1993 would not have come as a shock to those who watched the Islanders compile a 17-game point streak last autumn.

But after they stumbled into the COVID-19 pause and then were given the added obstacle of a qualifying-round series against the Panthers, what were the odds they would be on the brink of a berth in the NHL’s final four?

The odds were long. But here they are.

“It’s been fun,” said Josh Bailey, who assisted on both of Nelson’s goals. But . . . “I think when you start reflecting on that at this point, I think it’s only going to hurt you.”

The teams took turns controlling play on Sunday, but when the second period closed with the score tied at 1 and the Flyers having outshot the Islanders 12-0 in the final minutes, it looked like a long series was in the offing.

Greiss kept the Islanders in it — yet another in a series of personnel decisions by Trotz that have paid off — and bought time for Pageau and Nelson to put the Islanders in control.

Despite the strangeness of having their team play every postseason game in Canada and none in front of fans, Islanders supporters seem to have embraced this experience.

They have a right to be excited about the next month. The Islanders themselves insist Game 5 is all that matters.

“Let’s look at the task at hand,” Trotz said. “The task at hand is we have to win one more game, and the last game is the toughest, and we’re going to have to go earn it. No one is going to walk in our room and give us the game.”

Trotz was asked if the Islanders have what it takes to be the last team standing, and he reflected on the pothole-strewn playoff path the Capitals followed when he led them to the Cup two years ago.

“It’s a journey,” he said, “and you don’t know how the journey’s going to go and you just have to react to it and you have to forget what happened the night before and you have to look forward.”

For now, that means Tuesday. If all goes well, a plane ride to Edmonton will follow.

  

  

  

  

  

New York Sports