Photo: Dennis Schneidler/USA Today Sports
Barry Trotz talked about Islanders climbing to the top of the mountain since he got the job as a head coach two years ago. He had the Islanders right there by going to the second round in his first year as a head coach and to the conference final in his second season.
Could this be the season the Islanders reach the top by winning the Stanley Cup?
The Islanders talked about winning the Cup this year. They mentioned it the last two years, but if you feed them a truth serum, they would tell you that they are playing for the experience. Now, they can legitimately say they are all in for the Stanley Cup. The experience they had these last two seasons proved to be invaluable, particularly the Eastern Conference final series, which the Islanders lost in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Islanders are 15 wins away from getting to the top of the mountain after a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Everyone hypes up the Tampa Bay Lightning, Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, but for my money, the Islanders have as good of a chance to win the Cup as those teams. Here’s why: They play the best defense in hockey. They don’t give any room for teams to skate, and they can frustrate the other teams if their opponent can’t get their way.
I picked the Islanders to win in six against the Penguins despite the Penguins winning six out of their eight games against them in the regular season. I went that way because I feel the Islanders can frustrate the Penguins with their defensive structure and physicality. They can do the same for other teams.
Watching the Devils win the Stanley Cup a long time ago, I saw a team that used brains and brawns to frustrate top scorers. The Islanders resembled that team. Now they don’t have a player like Scott Stevens or Scott Neidermayer, but they have guys who know how to execute a defensive structure that Trotz has. Remember the Washington Capitals did not have a great defenseman that won them the Cup a few years ago, but they executed the type of defensive structure that Trotz implemented to frustrate the Penguins, Lightning and Golden Knights to win the Cup
Trotz can count on his players to play well defensively. This has not been his concern.
For the Islanders, it’s about scoring, especially executing on the power play. It has been a problem for them these last two seasons.
To the Islanders’ credit, they managed to survive despite power-play issues. They went far in the last two seasons. If they can eventually figure that out, they can do better things.
The Islanders do guys that know how to score in the postseason. Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas, Thomas Hickey, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mat Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier demonstrated that in the last two seasons. This is why the Islanders feel good about their chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
The Islanders have the goaltenders to get it done in Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.
Yes, Varlamov can be a question mark, but he played well in the postseason last season. He even managed to get over being bypassed to start Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference final for Thomas Greiss last season. He played as well as he could against the Lightning. He deserves the benefit of the doubt.
If he struggles, Sorokin can spell him. He started Game 1 against the Penguins on Sunday, and he had his ups and downs. He showed how good he can be in the first and second periods when he made saves after saves. He stepped up in overtime when the Penguins applied so much pressure on him after blowing a 3-2 lead. He could have fallen apart, but he didn’t. Now it’s Game 1, but at least he showed the Islanders something.
So the pieces are in place.
It’s all about getting the job done. The Islanders know they match up well with anyone. Trotz feels that way, too.
The fun part started Sunday, and now we will see how long it lasts.
One thing for sure. The Islanders are in a better place now they have been in quite some time.