The Islanders are back in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card slot after a one-season absence. And for all coach Lane Lambert and the players have stressed this season about not looking back, they can’t hide the motivational sting that last season’s disappointment still provides.
Their first-round series against the Metropolitan Division-champion Hurricanes opens on Monday night in Carolina. UBS Arena will host its first-ever playoff game when the series shifts to Long Island for Friday night’s Game 3.
“It’s so exciting,” said Mathew Barzal, who will return to the lineup for Game 1 after missing the final 23 games of the regular season with a lower-body injury. “I can’t tell you how hard last year was just not playing in those big games and those big moments. We want to be in the spotlight. And that’s what the playoffs is.”
“The real fun starts,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “(But) don’t get caught up in the moment. That can happen in playoffs. It’s an exciting time. It’s a lot of emotion. The building is going to be loud. So keep all of that as even-keel as you possibly can and just play your game.”
The divisional foes are each well aware of the other’s strengths and possible weaknesses. The Hurricanes won three of four during the season with the last game – their 2-1 home win on April 2 – perhaps serving as the template for what the Islanders must avoid in this series. The Hurricanes, who averaged 34.2 shots, the third most in the NHL, outchanced the Islanders 67-44 and outshot them 35-22.
“They kind of smother you,” Bo Horvat said. “But there’s a lot of similarities between us and them. I think we match up well against them. They like to play a 200-foot game, like we do. It’s whoever is going to crack and we can’t be the ones to do that.”
But the Islanders have gone just 3-5-2 against the Hurricanes since the Hurricanes swept a second-round series in four games in 2019 in the last playoff meeting between the teams.
“We’re going to have to finish our chances we get because they’re pretty good at limiting chances,” Mayfield said.
“They play a fast style and they like to shoot pucks,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “As a defenseman, we’ve got to do a good job of finding sticks and finding bodies. If they’re shooting pucks and Sorokie (goalie Ilya Sorokin) sees it the whole way, he’s going to make that save. It’s a matter of us doing a good job of clearing the front of the net and not giving any second chances.”
Martin Necas (28 goals, 43 assists) and Sebastian Aho (36 goals, 31 assists) – not the Islanders defenseman – lead the Hurricanes’ attack while defenseman Brent Burns had 18 goals and 53 assists. But Andrei Svechnikov (23 goals, 32 assists) is out for the playoffs with a knee injury.
After the teams’ last meeting, Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour opined that even though the Islanders had more to play for in that game as they struggled to secure a playoff berth, his team, “looked like the team that was maybe a little more desperate.”
“I think they’re going to see a better team than they probably saw a couple of weeks ago,” Pulock said.
The Islanders’ players and Lambert publicly downplayed the notion that Brind’Amour was disrespecting them as he praised his team’s effort. Likewise, Lambert and most players have publicly shrugged off the possibility the Islanders can use the comment as motivation in this series.
But Horvat, who may benefit the most from Barzal’s skating and playmaking being back in the lineup both in centering him on the top line and working together on the first power-play unit, said the Islanders could get an edge from Brind’Amour’s words.
“Yeah, I honestly didn’t know he said that, thanks for bringing it up,” Horvat said. “That just adds fuel to the fire.”