Off on Easter Sunday and patiently waiting for their next playoff opponent to be determined, the Islanders are taking a businesslike attitude to the Stanley Cup playoffs and focusing on the task at hand one day at a time.
But the events of the first round — Presidents’ Trophy winner Tampa Bay getting swept by wild-card Columbus, Western Conference top seed Calgary losing to wild-card Colorado in five games, Winnipeg being eliminated by St. Louis — have opened a door for all remaining teams to chase the Stanley Cup. And Mathew Barzal is willing to admit that yes, he’s dreaming of winning the whole thing now.
“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely,’’ Barzal told Newsday on Saturday. “We’re human in here. We know what we’re chasing . . . You want to be able to see that end goal. Day-to-day focus is on our team, and the next series, and just getting ourselves ready. But you still want to see the end of the tunnel, and it’s cool to know that we’re chasing the Stanley Cup.’’
With top contenders Tampa Bay, Calgary and Winnipeg already out and two others — Boston and Toronto — playing each other in the first round, Barzal said “it’s anyone’s Cup’’ now. And that anyone includes the Islanders.
According to vegasinsider. com, the Islanders are the fourth choice among remaining teams to win the Cup. Defending Stanley Cup champion Washington is the leader at 5-1, with St. Louis and Vegas (a Stanley Cup finalist as an expansion team last season) next at 6-1, followed by the Islanders at 13-2 and Colorado, Columbus and Toronto at 7-1. There are other sites that have the Islanders as the top choice to win.
“If you hit it right and your team’s feeling it at the right time and your goaltender’s hot, anybody can beat anybody,’’ said Islanders coach Barry Trotz, who won the Cup a year ago as the Capitals’ coach. “When you get to the second round, honestly, the eight teams that are here believe they’re going to win the Stanley Cup. Every one of them. And we’re one of them. And you have to have that belief until you get knocked out. And once you get to the next round, you’re down to four, and you really believe that you’re going to win it.’’
Trotz said that because of the salary cap and other factors, the NHL has more parity than people realize. He recalled that during his tenure with the Capitals, his team was the Presidents’ Trophy winner and was matched up against the bottom seed in the Eastern Conference, Toronto. The Capitals really weren’t that much better than the Maple Leafs, he said.
“All we did was win one game a month more than the Toronto Maple Leafs,’’ he said. “That was it. And you can do it on the front end. You can do it on the back end — whatever. But everybody says there’s this giant gap. There isn’t as big of a gap [in a best-of-seven playoff series] as a sample size over 82 [regular-season games].’’
Barzal said he always believed in his team, but things got much more realistic once the Islanders swept Pittsburgh, the back-to-back champions in 2016 and 2017.
“I’d say — I mean, I knew late in the season that we were in a good spot, but it was just, really worried about getting in the playoffs, and that was really the mindset throughout the regular season,’’ he said. “And you know, geez, after Game 2 or 3 against Pittsburgh, I think there was a real belief in here that there’s not a team in the league we can’t beat.
“So yeah, for me, it was after Game 3 in Pittsburgh: I was like, ‘Wow, this is for real. We can definitely make a run here.’ Not that I wasn’t confident before, but it became super-real that we’re right in it now, eh?’’
The Washington-Carolina winner will be the Islanders’ second-round opponent, and Trotz hopes the first-round series goes the maximum seven games.
“You know what? You do,’’ he said. “I mean, you know — every game takes a little piece of you. I remember playing the Islanders [in the playoffs in 2015]. We went seven games and went toe-to-toe with the Islanders and were able to win, and we started [three] days later, and we actually played, I believe it was the Rangers — we were exhausted.’’
In a series in which every game was decided by one goal, the Capitals took a three-games-to-one lead.
“As they started getting their game together,’’ Trotz said, “we started falling apart a little bit.’’
And the Rangers won in seven.