Anders Lee of the New York Islanders prepares to play...

Anders Lee of the New York Islanders prepares to play against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game Four at UBS Arena on April 27, 2024. Credit: Getty Images

RALEIGH, N.C. – Nothing is ever guaranteed in the NHL, and certainly less so when a team is facing playoff elimination, as the Islanders are in Game 5 of their first-round series against the Hurricanes on Tuesday night at PNC Arena.

The same could be said for coming back from a major knee injury, as captain Anders Lee did after tearing his ACL on March 11, 2021, and missing the rest of that season, including the Islanders’ run to the NHL semifinals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Lightning.

So despite the Islanders’ 3-1 deficit in this series, Lee wore a broad smile after Monday’s practice at Northwell Health Ice Center discussing this playoff run, his play and the performance, overall, of his third line with center Jean-Gabriel Pageau and right wing Pierre Engvall.

Coach Patrick Roy has called it his best trio through the first four games, and the analytics back his assessment. Per, the Lee-Pageau-Engvall trio has a Corsi For % of 55.22 at five-on-five, the best among the Islanders’ regular lines. It’s also the team’s only regular line that has more chances for than chances against skating five-on-five.

Lee, having completed his 11th NHL season and with his 34th birthday coming in July, has a deeper appreciation of these playoff opportunities.

“Absolutely,” said Lee, who enters Game 5 as the only player for either team with at least one point in each of the first four games. “I think you just take everything in, every opportunity you have, every chance you have in the playoffs to go after this thing. Having some fun with this one and really taking it all in.

“When you have a little bit of a mindset of having fun, it really takes a lot of edge off in some areas and you can go out and enjoy it and play your tail off and things will fall where they fall.”

Lee compiled 20 goals and 17 assists in 81 games this season. Those 37 points were the fewest he’s had since 2015-16, not including 2020-21 when he played just 27 games before injuring his right knee.

But against the Hurricanes’ man-to-man defensive structure, Lee has been able to use his 6-3, 227-pound frame to win his one-on-one battles and muscle the puck toward the crease. He had a goal and three assists in the first four games.

“He’s a big man and it’s his game,” Roy said. “The entire team, we’re doing very good in our one-on-ones. Yes, he’s been a force offensively. Even on our breakouts getting pucks out of the zone. So it’s nice to see him playing the way he has been playing.”

Of course, no player is on an island by himself. Engvall used his speed effectively through the first four games, compiling a goal and an assist. And Pageau, also with a goal and an assist, was a force in the faceoff circle.

He won 19 of 23 (83%) as the Islanders prevented a Hurricanes’ sweep with a 3-2 double-overtime win in Saturday’s Game 4 at UBS Arena. Pageau enters Game 5 leading the Islanders with a 66.7% success rate on draws.

“It’s confidence,” Pageau said. “It’s timing. There’s a lot that goes into a faceoff. I believe that faceoffs are not only won by the centerman. You need your defensemen, you need your wingers to be ready to jump and help you. Carolina has really good centermen that compete hard on every faceoff.”

Pageau also praised the “urgency” that Engvall has shown with his play in the series.

Roy has seen that too after Engvall, in the first season of a seven-year, $21 million deal, went through an up-and-down first full season with the Islanders. Both Roy and predecessor Lane Lambert made Engvall a healthy scratch for select games, and he finished with 10 goals and 18 assists in 74 games.

“Better and better,” Roy said about Engvall’s compete level. “What I love about Pierre is when he goes down into the corner and he holds onto that puck. He protects the puck very well and he backchecks. Would I like him to go more to the net? Yes. But I feel like he’s improving every day.”

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