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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Are these Islanders good enough to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning? Yes! Yes! Yes!

Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock celebrates his goal against

Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock celebrates his goal against the Lightning during the third period in Game 1 of their Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Sunday in Tampa, Fla. Credit: AP/Chris O'Meara


And I do not mean "Uncle Leo" Komarov. But now that I think about it, him, too!

The Islanders’ performance in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup semifinals against the Lightning on Sunday should erase once and for all the skepticism many of us who watch hockey have harbored about this team.

Scrappy? Yes. Disciplined? Yup. Balanced? Very. Well-coached? Absolutely. But even having conceded all of that, the conventional wisdom was that against powerhouses such as Boston and Tampa Bay, it would not be enough.

Well, here we are. Resistance is futile. After watching the Islanders stuff the potent Bolts offense into a steamer trunk and throw it into the Gulf of Mexico in a 2-1 victory, there is no reason to doubt they can play with anyone.

Does that necessarily mean they will steamroll the Lightning and skate into their first Final since 1984? Of course not. There is a long way to go, and Tampa Bay figures to show some championship mettle in Game 2.

That is not the point. The point is that the underdog thing is out the window now. The Islanders belong – in this series, the next series and any other series the NHL throws at them.

Fans are on board, as they should be. In another of my wildly unscientific Twitter polls on Monday, I asked which New York-area team will win a championship first – the Islanders, Mets, Nets or Yankees.

As of mid-afternoon, the Islanders were getting nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Still, before the series began, coach Barry Trotz hinted that he would play the underdog card with his players, noting correctly that every coach in the history of sports would do the same.

So I asked Cal Clutterbuck whether that speech had occurred, and whether such things matter to the group.

"No, I mean, no," he said. "Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. You ask one person, we’re an underdog. You ask another one, and we’re not.

"I think that we just feel like we have something to prove to ourselves and that’s what we’re trying to do and so the focus isn’t about, again, what other people think of us. It’s about what we need to do for ourselves and why we’re here and the focus is on each other and on ourselves."

The task for Trotz, his staff and his veteran-heavy roster is to stick to the plan that in Game 1 discombobulated everyone in a blue sweater, starting with the first line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.

Asked how the Islanders did it in Game 1, Trotz said, "We just managed pucks. It’s wall play. It’s staying above them. It’s being aware when you didn’t have the puck. They’re so good at creating, just entering the zone they can make four passes within about 10 feet, and you’ve got to sort that out.

"So it’s having smart people who can sort that out and just being on the right side and giving them layers that they have to go through. They’re still going to make some plays."

Fine, but everyone in the league knows the Isles’ m.o. on defense, or should. Why can’t they solve the riddle?

I asked Trotz how he would coach against the Islanders, and he smartly said, "I’m not going to tell you that, that’s what I would say. I’m not going to answer that question. I’m not going to give any ammo to anybody else."

Fair enough.

Another smart thing the Islanders did in Game 1 was get called for only two penalties, a good idea against a Tampa Bay power play that is connecting at an absurd 42.1% clip in the playoffs.

That’s even higher than Jacob deGrom’s batting average!

On to Game 2.

The Islanders might win, and they might lose. But the days of being surprised by the former are over.

New York Sports