The Islanders won’t say it. They can’t say it. Not when they’ve been so indoctrinated to focus on just one (choose from the following: day, practice, shift, period, game) at a time.
But it’s Stanley Cup-or-bust time for the franchise as it moves into the $1.1 billion UBS Arena at Belmont Park after back-to-back losses in the NHL semifinals, both times to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning.
The season opener is Thursday at Carolina as the Islanders open with a daunting 13-game road trip.
"I don’t think about anything other than the group we have," president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said before training camp opened when asked about getting over the playoff hump. "They’re coming in with experience and they’re coming in with the same intensity they’ve had the last couple of years to be the best team they possibly can be. Not really thinking about the end result."
Still, this essentially is the same group — minus two key players but with healthy captain Anders Lee back in the lineup after his right knee injury — that took the Lightning to the brink before losing Game 7, 1-0, at Tampa Bay. The Seattle Kraken selected top-line right wing Jordan Eberle in the expansion draft and puck-moving defenseman Nick Leddy was traded to the Red Wings to help alleviate a salary-cap crunch.
"I would say that last season, after the [playoff] bubble, we came into camp extremely motivated and confident in our game," defenseman Adam Pelech said. "I think that has only increased going into this year. Everyone was itching to get back here. It was a short summer, which was nice. We didn’t have to dwell on [the loss to the Lightning] for too long. I think everyone has that motivation and that confidence in this group and what we can accomplish. It’s just taking that step up."
The Islanders have qualified for the playoffs in all three seasons under Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz. The franchise has not reached the postseason in four straight years since their run of making the playoffs each season from 1975-88, which included four Cups.
"Playing the last two seasons and in the conference finals, those are experiences and games you can’t teach," Mathew Barzal said. "Once you go through and you’ve been that deep, you understand what it takes to win."
Lamoriello re-signed right wing Kyle Palmieri to a four-year, $20 million deal. He also signed free agents Zach Parise — bought out of the final four seasons of his 13-year, $98 million deal by the Wild — and defenseman Zdeno Chara, who won one Cup in 14 seasons as the Bruins’ captain before spending last season with the Capitals. Both Chara, 44, and Parise, 37, signed one-year deals.
The Islanders entered last season with an average age of 27.8, around the median for the NHL.
They now skew very much toward being one of the league’s oldest teams.
Still, at the very least, they should head into the regular season as strong favorites to win the Metropolitan Division as the NHL returns to an 82-game schedule following back-to-back altered and truncated seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The immediate task is navigating the long road trip, a necessity to allow construction to be completed on UBS Arena, which is scheduled to host its first game on Nov. 20.
"We just take it game by game," Casey Cizikas said. "That’s been our mentality from Day 1. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, our focus is playing our game and getting to our game right off the hop. Yeah, the Metro has always been a good division. It’s always been tough. But that just challenges you to get better and bring your ‘A’ game every single night."
Cizikas can’t say it. But it’s Stanley Cup or bust for these Islanders.