For a while, it looked like a black hole in the Islanders' schedule: This long, grueling 13-game road trip at the start of the season that saw them hopping from Florida to Vegas to Minnesota, and included a tour of two choice Canadian provinces.
And though it’s not over yet — the Islanders merely got to practice in East Meadow Tuesday because they don’t play again until Thursday, and it’s just across the river against the Devils — there have been some unexpected advantages to all these frequent flier miles. There are the obvious ones: First, more road games now mean more home games down the stretch, and secondly, they’ve mostly survived so far, going 5-3-2. But there’s the other stuff, too — things brought into starker relief after having spent last year playing in a bubble, confined to short trips and heavy restrictions.
"We’re a close team as it is and we spend lots of time together, but [when we’re on the road] we’re just focused on the game," coach Barry Trotz said. Focused on each other, too. "In Winnipeg we stayed at a different hotel and [it’s like] OK, where do we go from here? Where’s the restaurant? It’s different. It’s no different from you going on a little bit of a vacation and not being familiar with your surroundings . . . It stimulates different emotions and different things that you haven’t had in a long time. In Montreal . . . I went to supper [with a friend]. That’s like the third time I went to a restaurant since the pandemic started. It’s strange, but it actually felt a little bit normal."
There’s also the fact that the Islanders have finally gotten to see different types of hockey. After a season in which they played their divisional opponents eight times each, and Pittsburgh 14 times, including the playoffs, games against the Wild or the Jets seemed downright novel. They’ve played only three divisional games so far this season, though the next month will be heavier on those opponents — something that starts with the Devils Thursday.
"They’re all four-point games, number one," Trotz said. "But going the other way was good, too. The tests are different . . . We know [our divisional opponents] quite well, they know us quite well. We don’t know Minnesota, we don’t know Winnipeg as well, so it’s good to test our game against them. But I think getting these divisional games will be good for us. They’re all four-pointers. There isn’t a game you don’t want to win."
Casey Cizikas said the team was aware this stretch was going to be a tough challenge, but they also weren’t intimidated by it. The Islanders have seen little turnover with their player personnel, and more time together just helps solidify the team’s identity.
"The amount of time we spent over the last few years together, we’re comfortable in these situations," he said. "I think we’ve been on the road a lot . . . We have a veteran group here and these things are just a challenge for us to overcome as [a group]. These situations, they make you stronger, they make you closer as a group. I think we’re doing a good job."