The balance is playing a smart, simple game while knowing any mistake could mean it’s the season’s last game.
The Islanders understood they would have to tiptoe along that line three times to make it past the Hurricanes in their first-round matchup once they fell into a 3-1 series deficit. They forced Friday night’s Game 6 at UBS Arena with a nail-biting 3-2 Game 5 win in Carolina on Tuesday night.
“They’re all Game 7s for us,” right wing Hudson Fasching said. “It’s all we can focus on, taking one day at a time trying to stay alive.”
The real Game 7, if necessary, would be Sunday back in Carolina.
“You go out there, you don’t have to do anything crazy,” right wing Kyle Palmieri said. “We know what we have to do to be successful and we just have to go out there and execute that.”
Per team statistician Eric Hornick, the Islanders entered Friday’s win-or-else contest with a 20-7 all-time mark in Game 6s. That included a 17-4 home record with two of those Game 6 “home” losses coming in 2020 when all playoff games were played either in Toronto or Edmonton because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Islanders were 16-2 in Game 6s at Nassau Coliseum and 1-0 at Barclays Center.
When they faced elimination in Game 6, the Islanders were 8-2 at the Coliseum and 0-1 in 2020.
Of course, the last elimination game at the Coliseum was also the last one at the Islanders’ beloved and cramped original home as they beat the Lighting, 3-2, in overtime in Game 6 of their NHL semifinal series on June 23, 2021. The Lightning led 2-0 at 12:36 of the second period before the Islanders rallied to force overtime. Anthony Beauvillier ended it at 1:08 of the extra period as the fans joyously littered the ice with beer cans, and the cheers literally shook the building.
So Friday marked the Islanders' first elimination game in their new home.
The Islanders and Hurricanes split the first two playoff games at UBS Arena with the Islanders winning Game 3, 5-1 – including an NHL playoff record four goals within two minutes, 18 seconds late in the third period – then falling flat in Game 4, 5-2.
The UBS Arena crowd was deliriously loud at times in Games 3 and 4 and painfully silent at other moments.
“When you have the crowd behind you and you’re playing well and the fans are cheering, it definitely brings the best out in you,” center Bo Horvat said. “But obviously we’ve got to give them something to cheer about.”
“We need to get them going early by playing our way and then feed off of them as the game goes on,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said.
Playing the right way for the Islanders meant staying disciplined and avoiding special teams play as much as possible in order to remain skating five-on-five. The Islanders outscored the Hurricanes 12-8 skating five-on-five through the first five games, while NaturalStatTrick.com reported the Islanders had generated 56 high-danger chances to the Hurricanes’ 46.
But the Hurricanes were leading the series because they had gone 5-for-23 (21.7%) on the power play through the first five games while the Islanders had been an abysmal 1-for-15 (6.7%).
Coach Lane Lambert had tried to coax more power-play production by switching the Islanders from the more standard 1-3-1 formation to a 2-1-2.
During Thursday’s practice at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow, media members were kept from watching as the Islanders worked on their power play.
“Certainly practicing is extremely beneficial,” Lambert said. “Then you’ve got to translate it into game situations when the pressure is on. We continue to work on solutions to get the power play better. We know it has to be better.”
“We’ve had our struggles but I feel like we’re getting the chances,” defenseman Sebastian Aho said. “We know what we want to do, it’s just we aren’t always executing. We have to be better. It’s a big part, especially in the playoffs. You have to be good on special teams. Most of all, we’ve just got to get shots in there. It doesn’t have to be pretty at first.”