The Islanders are staring up at the playoff mountain again.
Sixteen victories will get them to the Stanley Cup peak they haven’t reached since 1983, but the Islanders can’t look that far in the distance. Right now, they can’t look past Game 1 of their first-round series against the Penguins on Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena.
"A lot of teams who end up winning a Stanley Cup go through experiences that will benefit them moving forward," Cal Clutterbuck said. "You don’t always climb the mountain the first time. You’ve got to learn your lessons. And we’ve been learning our lessons and, hopefully, this year the experience comes in and we can use those experiences in situations during this run and, hopefully, they benefit us."
Last season, the Islanders reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993 before bowing to the eventual Cup champion Lightning in six games. They swept the Penguins in 2019 — Barry Trotz’s first season as Islanders coach — in the first round before being swept by the Hurricanes.
The Penguins still have the remnants of the core that led them to Cups in 2016 and 2017 in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, defensemen Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin and coach Mike Sullivan. They beat the Islanders in six of their eight games in the shortened regular season.
That helped the Penguins finish first in the East Division while the Islanders were fourth.
"We’ve seen them a lot the last few years," defenseman Ryan Pulock said. "We had the playoffs against them a couple of years ago. We’re going to prepare our game. We’re getting ready to go to war and I’m sure they’re doing the same thing. I think it’s going to be a fun series. We’ve got to do a good job against their top-end skill. We like to be a physical team and we’re going to have to try to use that to our advantage."
The first two rounds of these playoffs — revamped to reduce travel during the COVID-19 pandemic — will be played within the division before the four survivors are reseeded for the NHL semifinals and Cup Final, which will end in July.
But, again, the Islanders are not staring too far up the mountain.
Trotz has stressed to his players that he wants them to enjoy this playoff journey. Last season was certainly memorable given the unique playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton without fans in the arenas.
Pittsburgh is set to host at 50% of capacity starting with Tuesday night’s Game 2 while approximately 6,800 fans will be at Nassau Coliseum starting with Thursday night’s Game 3.
"You can hardly remember some of the regular season games," Trotz said. "You’ll probably remember more the things that you did with the guys on the road than the actual games. But playoffs, you remember the games. You remember those moments, those overtime wins, those big goals, the crowd, the emotion. You get marked up in a playoffs series and you don’t feel the pain."
"I think playoffs are all about creating new experiences, new memories and going out there and chasing it down," Clutterbuck said.
Trotz said the experience of the playoff runs the past two seasons can only help. The lesson learned was if the Islanders play the way they want — sound defensively with a hard-edged physicality and four-line balance attacking the crease — they can compete in all situations.
"It’s just positive reinforcement," Trotz said. "It gives you the confidence that you know you can do it. It gives you confidence that you know it works. But every year is a different challenge."
That steep playoff mountain looms tall.