It’s been 28 years since the Islanders clinched a playoff series at Nassau Coliseum. That’s the opportunity they have Wednesday night in Game 6 of their first-round matchup against the Penguins before an even larger crowd than the first two playoff games in the building.
"I think they’ll handle it fine," coach Barry Trotz said on Tuesday. "We’ve been in this situation a few times the last couple of years. I think our group is pretty grounded. I don’t have to say a whole lot. They know."
The Islanders took a 3-2 series lead with Monday night’s 3-2 double-overtime win in Pittsburgh, as rookie goalie Ilya Sorokin’s stellar, 48-save performance and Josh Bailey’s gift winner off goalie Tristan Jarry’s giveaway 51 seconds into the second extra period offset a less-than-stellar outing from the rest of the team.
The Coliseum, in its final go-round as an NHL playoff facility with UBS Arena at Belmont Park targeted to open in November, hosted 6,800 fans for Games 3 and 4. But that will increase to approximately 9,000 in the 13,913-capacity barn as the seating in the vaccinated sections is expanded.
"It will be louder," Trotz said. "It will be a great atmosphere. It will be fun. It was a great atmosphere the last game. I’ll have to make a call to the governor to see if he can open it right up for us, get all our fans in there."
The winner of this series will face the Bruins for the East Division title after Boston eliminated the Capitals in five games.
The Islanders’ last playoff clincher at the Coliseum came on April 28, 1993, as they defeated the Capitals, 5-3, in Game 6 of their Patrick Division semifinals. But that game is more infamously known for Dale Hunter’s vicious hit on an unsuspecting Pierre Turgeon after the Islanders’ star celebrated a goal.
The Islanders will likely need a more complete effort than what they gave in Game 5 to keep the series from returning to Pittsburgh for a deciding Game 7 on Friday night.
The Islanders were thoroughly outworked through the first two periods, improved slightly in the third period before playing solid hockey in overtime.
But Sorokin, who has won his first three NHL playoff starts, has been a difference maker in the series.
"Both teams are experienced," Trotz said. "Experience allows you to filter what’s important. Experience allows you to stay calm in those chaotic moments. So hopefully that helps. There’s going to be some chaotic moments. There’s no analytics to experience. You have to go through experiences."
The Islanders have won four of six postseason series under Trotz, including advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last season for the first time since 1993. Those games, though, were played in empty arenas in Toronto and Edmonton.
That run included a 5-0 win in the deciding Game 5 in the first round against the Capitals and a 4-0 victory over the Flyers in Game 7 of the second round after the Islanders had taken a 3-1 lead in that series. The Lightning eliminated the Islanders with a 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 of the conference finals.
"We’ve had some of our best games in the clinchers," Trotz said. "We got to our game and we stayed to our game. I think our guys have responded and I’m pretty confident they will [Wednesday]."