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Barry Trotz builds his legacy by leading Islanders back to conference finals for first time since 1993

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz reacts against the

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz reacts against the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference playoff series at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Saturday. Credit: Getty Images / Elsa

First, Barry Trotz ousted Joel Quenneville of the Panthers, the active leader in NHL coaching victories.

Next, he ousted Todd Reirden, his former assistant and successor, whom the Capitals fired soon thereafter.

Then, he ousted Alain Vigneault, a two-time Stanley Cup finalist whose Rangers came back from a 3-1 second-round deficit to shock Trotz’s Caps in 2015.

Not a bad postseason trifecta. So how can Trotz top that in the coaching matchup for the Eastern Conference finals, which start Monday night in Edmonton?

By beating a former Hofstra lacrosse player.

Yes, casual hockey fans might not have known this: Jon Cooper of the Lightning actually has spent more of his life on Long Island than has Trotz, who arrived only two years ago.

Cooper was around for four years in the late 1980s, playing varsity lacrosse and club hockey and attending games at Nassau Coliseum with friends not long after the end of the Islanders’ dynasty era.

After that, he followed a circuitous career path that included law before veering into minor league coaching, where in 2010 future Islanders captain Anders Lee helped him win a USHL Clark Cup with the Green Bay Gamblers.

Shortly after the Islanders called up Lee in 2014, Cooper said of Lee, “A born leader, and he's a winner. The kid just finds a way to will teams to win."

Nothing has changed there. Cooper said on Sunday that he ran into Lee in a hotel elevator in the Toronto “bubble” the other day, and he gushed to reporters about how well Lee still is playing, saying “he’s gained a step” since the end of the COVID-19 pause.

“He’s a winner,” Cooper said, “there’s no doubt about it.”

Things have worked out pretty well for Lee’s old coach, too, since 2014.

Cooper, who grew up in Western Canada, has had a consistently successful run in seven full seasons in Tampa. Despite a first-round upset loss to the Blue Jackets last season, he has led the team to the conference finals in four of the past six years.

In 2015, Tampa Bay beat the Rangers in a seven-game conference final, then lost to Chicago in six games in the Cup Final.

Trotz has known and admired Cooper for years - and beat him in a seven-game conference finals with the Capitals in 2018 - but he said he got to know him better when the two were in the same hotel in Toronto.

“He’s done a great job in Tampa with the team that he has,” Trotz said. “They play upbeat, they’re highly skilled . . . I think with Coop, he’s a really good hockey mind.”

Islanders fans will not be more sympathetic to Cooper because of his Long Island connection, not with a chance for the Islanders to advance to their first Cup Final since 1984.

As much as any player, Trotz has become the People’s Choice, a coach on a roll of successful button-pushing.

The latest example came in Game 7 against the Flyers on Saturday night, when he replaced Semyon Varlamov with Thomas Greiss in goal and Greiss pitched a 4-0 shutout.

Do not discount how big the victory was to Trotz’s legacy. He started in the NHL with the Predators in 1998-99 and failed to make it out of the second round until winning the Cup with the Capitals in 2018.

Now he has made a conference finals twice in three seasons, the latter with a team that had not done it since 1993.

It would be an understatement to say the Islanders have gotten the attention of the hockey world.

They have received rave reviews from the cognoscenti who appreciate GM Lou Lamoriello and Trotz engineering a turnaround from a defensive wreck to a team that has smothered and frustrated all comers this summer.

“They’ve definitely bought into a system that always gives them a chance to win,” former Rangers captain and current Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.

“It’s a simple brand of hockey. It’s a tough brand of hockey as an opponent against them. There are no free passes.”

Eight victories to go.

New York Sports