An Islanders Summer?


As exciting as the Rangers winning the NHL Draft Lottery is with top rated prospect Alexis Lafreniere on tap this October 9, Blueshirt fans now have another concern. One which we don’t want to think about.

Picture the bitter blood rival New York Islanders celebrating a Stanley Cup victory in the Edmonton bubble. It’s something I’d rather not see. Right now, the way they are playing, it’s possible that the Islanders could be playing in the Conference Finals for a chance at the Stanley Cup Final.

On a hot 90 degree late August day in the NYC area, it’s the last thing any Rangers fan wants to see. The reality is the Barry Trotz Isles are on a roll. They have continued to execute their disciplined system and tenacious checking to perfection. Having ousted the Panthers in four and taking care of a listless Capitals in five which lead to Todd Reirden losing his job, here they are fresh off a convincing 4-0 shutout of the ‘top seeded’ Flyers in Game One last night.

They’re four lines deep, six defensemen who all are getting the job done, and starting goalie Semyon Varlamov became the first Islander in franchise history to pitch back-to-back shutouts. Even if it spanned the conclusion of the Stanley Cup first round and beginning of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the fact is Varlamov is making their fans forget about current Vegas number one goalie Robin Lehner. He is making all the key saves with the Flyers second period exemplifying the steady play from the Russian veteran.

When one looks at this Isles run from the outside, it’s easy to see why they’re having success. They don’t rely on one line or only star center Mat Barzal. They’re a T-E-A-M in every sense that’s been well constructed by GM Lou Lamoriello and coached by the detail oriented Trotz. Everyone laughed after they lost John Tavares and replaced him with Matt Martin, who was reacquired from the Leafs to reform the effective fourth line that features Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.

It’s the Islanders fans who are getting the last laugh. Go ahead and mock their arena or whatever lame jokes you have. The bottom line is they’re well run by a Hall of Fame executive and boast the best coach in the game who guided the Caps to the Cup in 2018. They couldn’t wait to get rid of him. No wonder Washington is a shadow of itself with consecutive first round eliminations despite featuring Alex Ovechkin.

Meanwhile, Lamoriello quietly made two smart deals to improve the Isles at the trade deadline by acquiring the pesky Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Ottawa and picking up former Devils captain Andy Greene for a bargain. He knew Pageau could help the team by bolstering the middle. A perfect fit for the Trotz system, the tenacious Pageau continues to score clutch goals like the one he finished early in the third period with the Islanders nursing a one goal lead. Who scored that goal? The defensive minded Greene in the first on a well executed play off a Flyers turnover.

Sometimes, it’s the role players who step to the forefront in the NHL Playoffs. It can’t always be the stars. Hockey is different from the NBA in that way. It’s more about the team. The Islanders are similar to how Lamoriello built the Devils. The only difference is there are no superstars or future Hall of Famers. That makes it more impressive.

They know they can rely on anyone in that lineup to deliver a big hit, key block, good pass or clutch goal. It was Ross Johnston and Leo Komarov who took the Flyers off the puck behind Carter Hart’s net. Then Komarov made a good centering feed for a open Pageau, who did what he usually does in these big games. Finished off his fifth of the postseason. At least we as heartbroken Ranger fans can take solace knowing Pageau isn’t just a Ranger killer. He’s the epitome of a good player, who does it through hard work. The center wins face-offs and board battles while knowing where to go for the dirty goals.

That was a great move by Lou. He knew Greene obviously from the Devils. Greene is the kind of savvy vet who sacrifices the body for the cause. It’s usually a diving block or big clear that he’s known for. His last goal in the postseason came in 2010. It was a nice reward for a dedicated player.

When Barzal isn’t faking out Braden Holtby to end his time in DC, he’s setting up goals like the one Anders Lee scored to put the Isles up 3-0 on Monday night. He’s quietly having a good playoffs. But he knows he doesn’t have to carry the load.

Perhaps the Isles best line is centered by the consistent Brock Nelson, who can play in any situation while delivering strong play that leads to offense. Anthony Beauvillier continues to score with his six goals pacing the team. Nelson, Beauvillier and Josh Bailey are a very effective second line that plays both sides of the puck and forces turnovers like the baker’s dozen the Flyers had in an uninspired performance.

How else would you explain that dismal first that saw them dominated in every facet? The Isles outshot the Flyers 15-4. Only the brilliance of Hart kept the Flyers in it with his unreal glove save on Nelson one for the highlight reel. The young netminder is the backbone of Alain Vigneault’s team which suddenly isn’t scoring goals. Top scorers Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux and Travis Konecny remain with donuts next to their name. Only Konecny, Kevin Hayes and Joel Farabee played well. They’ll need to be much better for tonight’s Game Two tomorrow night.

Why did Vigneault pull Hart with under eight minutes left? I get they trailed by three, but that was one of the worst decisions ever. Especially for a good coach who’s had success. Devon Toews banked in a clear almost right away to put a stamp on it.

So, can these Islanders win this thing? Why not. We’ve seen stranger things happen already. They’re fully committed under Trotz, who knows what it takes. He can put Johnston in for Derick Brassard and it pays off in a hard check that leads to a big insurance goal from Pageau 2:54 into the third.

They got 15 saves from a busier Varlamov in the second when the Flyers remembered that there was a game. He didn’t have to be great, but made some big stops when called upon. He finished with 29 altogether to earn the game’s First Star.

A reminder that it’s only 1-0 Isles. Don’t push the panic button yet. However, it sure looks like the Islanders match-up. They improved to 4-0 on the season against the Flyers. They have a mental edge. Similar to what the Stars are doing to the Avalanche, who have injury issues as well after falling behind 2-0 in their second round series.

As excited as I am to see the Rangers select Lafreniere out of Rimouski Oceanic on October 9, I’m concerned about the Islanders. If you’re not, you better be.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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