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No secrets between Islanders and Penguins, first-round playoff opponents

The Islanders' Kieffer Bellows and the Penguins' Sam

The Islanders' Kieffer Bellows and the Penguins' Sam Lafferty tangle in front of the net during the second period of an NHL game on March 27 in Pittsburgh.  Credit: AP/Keith Srakocic

It usually takes a game or two in a typical Stanley Cup playoff series for some hard feelings to build between the teams. That won’t be the case in this unique season in which every game was against a divisional opponent.

This time, the animosity will be there from the opening faceoff in the first round given the opponents have already faced each other eight times.

"The foundation is there no matter who plays who," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. "You’re going to have teams play potentially 15 times against each other. In some ways, it’s Groundhog Day. In other ways, you’re just putting kindling under the fire."

The Islanders finished fourth in the East Division after Monday night’s season-ending 3-2 overtime loss to the Bruins and will face the first-place Penguins in a best-of-seven series. The Islanders were 2-4-2 against the Penguins this season. The playoffs are expected to open either Saturday or Sunday.

So, unlike other series in other seasons when teams did not play solely within their division, most of the pre-scouting has long been finished. The Islanders, off on Tuesday, will spend the rest of this week in a mini-training camp working on their own game.

"We know who they are and they know who we are," Jean-Gabriel Pageau said. "There’s four good teams. Once you get in playoffs, anyone has a chance and I truly believe in our chance to go through those teams."

The Bruins and Capitals will meet in the East’s other first-round series.

The four divisional champions will then be re-seeded for the NHL semifinals and Stanley Cup Final.

Last season the Islanders, with the help of a summer Training Camp 2.0 after the COVID-19 pandemic halted the regular season, reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993 before bowing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning in six games.

Trotz believes he has more depth this season.

"We’re a pretty confident group," Mathew Barzal said. "We’ve beaten all the top teams. We’ve had good games with everybody. Going deep in the playoffs last year helps this group as well. We’re hungry. Last year was heartbreaking. So, it’s a hungry group and we’re obviously looking forward to getting it going."

The Islanders last lifted the Cup in 1983 — their fourth straight championship — and haven’t returned to the Cup Final since 1984.

So, despite a 5-8-3 finish to the regular season, the Islanders are hopeful of another long postseason run. They must get solid goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin. They must play a physical, sound defensive game. They must focus on attacking the opponent’s crease and getting bodies to the net.

Those are the fundamentals the Islanders will spend this week practicing.

"We earned the right to be in the playoffs and it’s going to be, hopefully, a few months of that same grind," Trotz said. "We’ll dissect a little bit of the Pittsburgh Penguins as they will with us and let’s get it on. I want our guys to enjoy the playoffs. It’s so hard to get here, there’s pressures, but I want them to enjoy it."

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