The Islanders remain one win away from their first berth in a conference finals since 1993 yet know their second-round series against the Flyers is far from over.
The teams play Game 6 on Thursday night at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. The Flyers staved off elimination with a 4-3 overtime win on Tuesday night despite the Islanders scoring twice late in the third period to force the extra period.
“I think we all realize how big this opportunity is that we have,” Islanders center Casey Cizikas said on Wednesday, an off-day for both teams. “It’s just a matter of going out there and taking advantage of it. We want to play well for everybody watching back on the Island. We want to prove to ourselves that we can do this. I think we’ve got the right group, right now.”
Still, the Islanders, expected to have top-line center Mathew Barzal available after he was forced from Game 5, need to be better than they were on Tuesday or in Game 4’s 3-2 win, which coach Barry Trotz called his team’s “worst game” of the postseason.
“I think both teams have some pressure right now,” Flyers center Kevin Hayes said. “They want to close it out and we don’t want to allow that to happen.”
The Flyers got off to the better start in each of the last two games and, in general, gave the more complete effort, though the Islanders continue to dominate the third periods.
“I would say that our last two games have been our best since we’ve been in the bubble,” said Flyers coach Alain Vigneault, who may not have top-line center Sean Couturier healthy for Game 6. “That makes me optimistic that we can continue on that rise up. We need to continue to grease it and grind it.”
Vigneault’s Rangers did rally from a 3-1 series deficit against Trotz’s Capitals in 2015 in the second round.
“These are two, evenly-matched teams,” Trotz said. “I go through the chances, do all the analytics. It’s a dead heat in a lot of ways. So, we’ve just got to raise our game to the next level. We’ve got to get better starts. We’ve been chasing the last couple of games.
“To me, it’s the buy-in, it’s the commitment,” Trotz added. “At this time of the year, it’s not as much about Xs and Os as it is about focus and staying on task. I’m embracing that it’s going to be hard.”
Xs and Os do play a part in it and it’s fairly obvious where the Islanders need to improve.
The Flyers have been successful both in stretching out the Islanders’ defense in their zone and keeping the defenders moving side to side. Claude Giroux’s second-period goal and Scott Laughton’s overtime winner came on deflected shots near the crease.
“You see they’re kind of going east-west and getting to the middle with the point shot,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said.
The Islanders are also very effective when they establish a forecheck. However, that hasn’t been as consistent the past couple of games as the Flyers have forced turnovers.
“We’ve just got to get pucks in deep behind their defensemen and not turn it over in the neutral zone because they thrive off of that transition and those turnovers,” Cizikas said.
“It’s a matter of execution getting out of our zone and through the neutral zone so we can have that speed on those forechecks,” right wing Cal Clutterbuck said.
The winner of this series will face the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
“They’ll be ready tomorrow, there’s no question,” Trotz said of the Islanders. “I don’t have any fear.”