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Islanders returned from pause a refocused team, and it showed vs. Panthers

Islanders center Mathew Barzal celebrates his goal with

Islanders center Mathew Barzal celebrates his goal with teammates as Panthers players look on from the bench during the third period of a Stanley Cup qualifying round game in Toronto on Friday. Credit: The Canadian Press / Chris Young via AP

So much is different in this NHL postseason, being played without fans as teams are sequestered in one of two hub city, quarantined bubbles.

And so much is the same. Namely, the feeling of winning.

The Islanders were off on Saturday after eliminating the Panthers from their best-of-five qualifying series with a 5-1 win in Friday’s Game 4 to earn a berth in the 16-team playoffs. The Islanders will face the winner of Sunday’s Bruins-Capitals round-robin game at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in the best-of-seven first round, likely starting either Tuesday or Wednesday.

It will be a much shorter break than the 10 days off the Islanders had last year between sweeping the Penguins in the first round and being swept by the Hurricanes in the second round.

“It’s a totally different situation,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “I can tell you what I did learn: It’s a lot more fun winning that first series than losing in the second.

“We don’t know who we’re going to play yet,” Trotz added. “They are going to play each other [Sunday] and that will be a game of great interest. Whoever we end up playing, we’ll be prepared.”

The Panthers scored four of their seven total goals against the Islanders on the power play and, really, it was five since one other was scored just two seconds after a Panthers’ man advantage had expired.

So, Trotz is happy with his team’s five-on-five defensive structure, an Islanders’ core strength.

How the Islanders played in their series against the Panthers much more resembled their consistency in a franchise-record, 17-game point streak (15-0-2) from Oct. 12-Nov. 23 than the inconsistency that plagued them later in the season, particularly after injuries to Cal Clutterbuck on Dec. 19, defenseman Adam Pelech on Jan. 2 and Casey Cizikas on Feb. 11.

The Islanders lost 11 of their last 13 before the season was paused on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think teams go through different things,” Trotz said. “When you’re not winning, you lose swagger. It doesn’t matter if you’re a top team or on the bottom. If you look at our record down the stretch, we had multiple overtime losses [0-3-4 going into the pause]. I knew we were coming out of it.

“We had that break. Our focus was good. It translated back into our game. We know how we have to play.”

Of course, the challenges will just get harder the deeper the Islanders advance into the playoffs.

“I’ve said in the past, you work 82 games and you want to get through that first series so you can move on and your hard work that you put in pays off,” Trotz said. “That still applies in this series. The guys put in a lot of work to get through that series. The difference was we had that long break and we didn’t know what the bubble situation would be. You want to get an invitation to the dance. We got our ticket stamped [Friday].”

New York Sports