The path to the Islanders’ first-round playoff series against the Penguins, which opens on Wednesday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, was set in motion early in coach Barry Trotz’s tenure.
While most NHL observers were predicting a third straight season out of the playoffs for the Islanders after John Tavares left for Toronto, Trotz was preaching the value of strength as a group.
The players, hungry for direction and structure within their game, bought in immediately to the Stanley Cup-winning coach’s concepts on the ice and off.
“One of the statements I said at the start of the year was, ‘If you want to go somewhere quick, go by yourself,’ ” Trotz said after the Islanders clinched home-ice advantage for a playoff series for the first time since 1988 with a 3-0 win at Washington on Saturday night in the regular-season finale. “If you want to go far, you go as a group. And they decided to go as a group.”
The Islanders have won one playoff series since 1993 — a six-game win over the Panthers in the first round in 2016 — but finished with 103 points, their most since their last trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1983-84.
They allowed an NHL-low 191 goals after giving up 293 last season, the most in the NHL since 2007.
“It’s amazing what you can do when you want to go somewhere together,” Trotz said.
The team’s porous defensive effort was part of the reason ownership hired Lou Lamoriello as president and general manager to bring stability to the organization and add a healthy dose of work ethic to the franchise’s culture.
Lamoriello hired Trotz after he and the Capitals parted ways during contract extension talks.
“After the year we had last year, we knew we had something to prove,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “From Day 1 of training camp, the guys came to work. The guys bought in. Every single guy in here, even the guys that weren’t playing every night. That’s what feels good, just having that success and being stingy defensively after giving up the most goals in the league last year.
“It’s a credit to the coaching staff for putting that stuff in front of us and helping us on it. And for us taking all that in and battling. Every single guy in here deserves a pat on the back for that.”
Trotz, eminently confident in his abilities, comfortable with his persona but never one to hog credit, said it was the group’s response and effort that made him most proud this season.
“I think the group was hurting a little bit from the summer,” he said. “The departures and the way the year finished, that was the feeling. They were able to get their swagger back a little bit as a group and understand you can’t look back. You’ve got to look forward. They focused on being a good team as a group. I think we became that. We made the playoffs. Making the playoffs in this league is really hard.”
The Islanders, with home-ice advantage in the playoffs for the first time since 1988, will open their first-round series against the Penguins on Wednesday night at 7:30 at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum.
Game 2 will be Friday night at 7:30 p.m. before the series switches to Pittsburgh for Game 3 at noon next Sunday and Game 4 on April 16 at 7:30 p.m.
The NHL released its playoff schedule on Sunday morning after the Islanders clinched second-place in the Metropolitan Division with a 3-0 win at Washington on Saturday night in the season-finale.
The starting times for Games 5-7, if necessary, are to-be determined.
Here’s the full schedule:
Game 1: Wednesday, Coliseum, 7:30 p.m., MSG Networks, NBC Sports Network
Game 2: Friday, Coliseum, 7:30 p.m., MSG Networks, NBC Sports Network
Game 3: April 14, Pittsburgh, Noon, NBC
Game 4: April 16, Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m., MSG Networks, NBC Sports Network
Game 5: April 18, Coliseum, Time/TV TBD
Game 6: April 20, Pittsburgh, Time/TV TBD
Game 7: April 22: Coliseum, Time/TV TBD