Anders Lee’s eyes were reddened with frustration when the Islanders captain spoke after the last game of last season. That raw, postgame emotion has been replaced with a steely resolve as a new season starts.
"I think our level of determination and focus, as a result of where we’ve been and where we’ve come to, it’s at the highest peak since we’ve been here," Lee said. "I think we know what we have in front of us and the opportunity that’s here and in the group in the room. We just want to make sure we take advantage of our time."
The Islanders, coming off their first Eastern Conference finals berth since 1993, faced the Rangers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in the season opener for both teams and the first of eight games between the New York rivals. The Islanders also play at the Garden on Saturday night before opening their home schedule against the Bruins on Monday.
"You have to look at it as if you’re playing in a little bit of a playoff series," coach Barry Trotz said. "You want to get that first game. You want to get maybe a little bit of a psychological edge, if there is or not.
"Whatever happens, good, bad or indifferent, we’ll refocus and then we’ll move on to the next opponent," Trotz added. "You really have to keep that short-term memory. The focus is just on the game at hand. You can’t look too much ahead. Getting off to a good start in a shortened season, that doesn’t hurt."
Last season, the Islanders had played 68 of their 82 games when the regular season was halted on March 12. This season has been truncated further to 56 games, a schedule Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello referred to as "56 playoff games."
Trying to keep the team’s personnel free from a COVID-19 outbreak that could potentially impact their schedule only complicates matters further.
The Islanders have not reached the Stanley Cup Final since 1984 after winning four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983. They have reached the playoffs in each of the first two seasons under Lamoriello and Trotz but have not reached the postseason three straight times since 2002-04.
To do so, the Islanders must navigate the revamped East Division as the NHL temporarily realigned to limit travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, restricting games to divisional play. Only four of the eight teams — the division also includes the Devils, Bruins, Sabres, Penguins, Flyers and Capitals — will qualify for the playoffs.
Six of those eight teams qualified for the postseason after the NHL restarted its season in August in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.
The Islanders extended the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning to six games in the conference finals, losing 2-1 in overtime in the series-ending game on Sept. 17.
Asked that night whether the Islanders should be considered perennial Cup contenders, Lee responded, "I don’t see why not. I can’t speak volumes more about this group."
And the core group has remained mostly intact, though defenseman Devon Toews was traded to the Avalanche because of salary-cap considerations, an eye injury forced defenseman Johnny Boychuk into a de facto retirement and Derick Brassard and goalie Thomas Greiss left via free agency.
"There is no reason to be satisfied at this point," right wing Josh Bailey said. "We didn’t accomplish what we wanted. We took some strides in the right direction. Now, it’s a new season. You learn from those experiences and try to put them to good use and move forward and try to apply them here as we go along this season."