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With high expectations for new campaign, Barry Trotz wants Islanders to forget the previous two seasons

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz directs his players

Islanders head coach Barry Trotz directs his players during Training Camp at Northwell Health Ice Center on Jan. 12. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Islanders enter the new season hoping — expecting — to build off the first two seasons of the Lou Lamoriello/Barry Trotz era and go even deeper into the playoffs.

That means the bar is necessarily set high after the Islanders last season reached the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993.

But Trotz believes the best way to make better memories is to have a short memory.

"The first thing is to forget about the last two seasons," the coach said Tuesday. "In a sense of what we’ve done with the understanding that we haven’t gotten to where we want to get to and we’re not sneaking up on anybody."

The Islanders open their season on Thursday night against the Rangers, the first of two games in three nights at Madison Square Garden before Monday’s home opener at Nassau Coliseum against the Bruins.

"The way things have transpired over the last six, seven, eight months, it kind of feels like a continuation of things a little bit," captain Anders Lee said. "It kind of just feels like you’re picking up where you left off."

Still, it will be a unique season as the NHL tries to safely navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic with a truncated 56-game schedule preceding the typical four rounds of best-of-seven playoff series. Last season was halted on March 12 before teams returned to play the postseason on Aug. 1.

But the postseason was played in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton as the Lightning, who beat the Islanders in six games, won the Stanley Cup. That was one round further than the Islanders went in 2019, when they swept the Penguins but were then swept by the Hurricanes.

The NHL will play this season in its own arenas, albeit without fans in the majority of the buildings.

That will make it a strange, if not sad, coda to the Islanders’ tenure at the Coliseum before moving into the $1 billion UBS Arena at Belmont Park.

"I, obviously, really hope that we get fans in there," defenseman Scott Mayfield said. "I think it’ll be weird playing in the Coliseum, for sure. Usually, it’s pretty loud in there and now I think we’re just going to have empty seats and it’ll be pretty quiet. So, it’s a lot different."

The league has been temporarily re-aligned into four, geographically-designed divisions to limit travel. Visiting teams will frequently play more than one game at a road site and the Islanders have two-game stands in January at Washington and Philadelphia as well as at the Garden.

Play will be limited to divisional games so the teams in the East — also including the Devils, Sabres and Penguins in addition to the Bruins, Flyers, Capitals, Rangers and Islanders — will play each other eight times.

The first two rounds of the playoffs will also be within the division.

"I know when you play someone eight times, you’re not going to like them very much," Trotz said. "And if you have the pleasure of playing them 15 times, you’re really not going to like them very much. You are absolutely looking forward to the challenge of this division but you’re also probably scared to death of the challenge because there’s so many good teams."

A strong start is paramount for the condensed, shortened season.

This may give the Islanders an advantage as their roster is largely intact from last season. Gutsy defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s career is over because of an eye injury, defenseman Devon Toews was traded to the Avalanche because of salary-cap considerations and goalie Thomas Greiss and third-liner Derick Brassard left via free agency.

"I think it’s an advantage for us and we want to make sure that we make it one," right wing Josh Bailey said. "We’ve got a really good group, a really close group. We’re all familiar with one another and got even closer through the experience last summer."

Highly-touted Russian rookie Ilya Sorokin will be goalie Semyon Varlamov’s new partner. Second-year defenseman Noah Dobson inherits a bigger role with Boychuk and Toews gone.

Trotz actually had few lineup questions through training camp. His two goalies were set as were his top three defense pairs of Adam Pelech with Ryan Pulock, Nick Leddy with Mayfield and Andy Greene with Dobson.

Three of the four lines were set as well. Mathew Barzal will be between Lee and Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson will center Anthony Beauvillier and Bailey and the identity line of Casey Cizikas with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck also remains intact.

Trotz must find the best combination of wings to play on Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s third line.

"We can get better around our special teams," Trotz said. "You’re going to get a whole laundry list of things we can get better. But if everybody gets 1% better, we’re going to be better as a team."

Season prediction

If healthy, the Islanders figure to have a third straight successful season in the Lou Lamoriello/Barry Trotz era. The players are comfortable with the system and motivated to go further than last season’s berth in the Eastern Conference finals, their first since 1993. But, as evidenced last season with injuries to defenseman Adam Pelech and each of the invaluable fourth liners, depth could be an issue. Trotz’s teams have started well and that is crucial in a shortened season. Pencil the Islanders into the playoffs with a return trip to the conference finals but still one round short of the Stanley Cup Final.

Projected record: 32-18-6

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