TAMPA, Fla. — Barry Trotz chats, from time to time, with Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire, now a special assignment coach for the Islanders who lives in the Tampa region.
Lemaire was a potent playmaking center who averaged nearly a point per game for the dynastic Canadiens from 1967-79 and later coached the stingy Devils to their first Stanley Cup in 1995. And when Lemaire recounts his playing days with fellow Hall of Fame scorers such as Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer, he never fails to tell Trotz how good the Canadiens were defensively as well.
"As much as you want to talk about all the talent and all the great offensive players, Jacques will tell you the hidden secret was they were really strong defensively," the Islanders’ coach said.
Fast-forward to the 2021 playoffs and nothing has changed. Each of the four teams remaining in the NHL semifinals can point to its strong defensive structure as a key component in its success.
The Islanders and Lightning totaled 17 goals in their first four games after the Islanders won Game 4, 3-2, on Saturday night at the Coliseum. The Canadiens and Golden Knights totaled 18 goals in the other series, which included two overtime games.
Both series were tied at 2-2 entering Monday. The Islanders faced the Lightning in Game 5 on Monday night at Amalie Arena. Game 6 will be at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday night.
Vegas rallied to even the other series at 2-2 with a 2-1 overtime win in Sunday night’s Game 4 in Montreal.
The Islanders are bidding to return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984. They followed the Canadiens’ four straight Cups from 1976-79 with four of their own from 1980-83. Those Islanders teams were blessed with gifted offensive players such as Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Denis Potvin, among others. But Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour, like Trotz today, emphasized defense first.
"The four years the Islanders had their dynasty, you talk to all the alumni and, yeah, they had some scorers in Bossy, but everything was around being able to outplay your opponent and make it really hard for them to take advantage of you," Trotz said. "And that’s good team defense by five-man units and you need the odd save here and there. That hasn’t changed forever.
"You want to outplay teams. And if you outplay teams, you outscore teams."
Opposing coach Jon Cooper said that was the critical lesson the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, who have a well-deserved strong reputation for their offensive skill, had to absorb before they finally could win a title.
The Lightning shockingly were swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round in 2019 but since have won six straight playoff series, including ousting the Islanders in six games in last year’s Eastern Conference finals.
So with all teams relying on a sound defensive structure for playoff success, the question becomes what can the Islanders do better to elevate themselves?
"That hard-nosed defensive style is the way you need to play to have success in the playoffs, so I don’t think it’s any coincidence that all four teams are going to play that way," defenseman Adam Pelech said. "As far as differentiating ourselves, that’s not really something that we concern ourselves with. We’re just trying to play our game and do what makes us successful. It’s great to be opportunistic, but we need to definitely focus on playing our game."