The last time the Islanders were in this position, the year was 1993. I was a junior in high school during that run. That team was still coached by Hall of Fame legend Al Arbour.
They put the underdog approach to good use thanks to headliners Pierre Turgeon, Ray Ferraro, David Volek, Steve Thomas, Pat Flatley, Benoit Hogue, Derek King, Glenn Heavy and Uwe Krupp. There also were two young defensemen in Darius Kasparaitis and Vladimir Malakhov, who made a difference.
Those Islanders were good enough to defeat the Capitals and stun the two-time defending champion Penguins on a Volek goal in overtime of Game Seven at the Igloo. Their luck ran out versus the similar in style counter attacking Canadiens, who were led by Patrick Roy. They were unbeatable in sudden death and broke Long Island hearts in five before doing the same to the hockey world that rooted for the Gretzky Kings. The Marty McSorley illegal stick be damned.
So, here we are some 27 years later in a strange year that’s gone on for too long for all the wrong reasons. The Isles are now an extension of their head coach Barry Trotz. A proud 58-year old established coach who runs the bench the way it should be. He once turned the expansion Predators into a competitive playoff team from scratch. Then eventually got the Alex Ovechkin Caps over the hump to finally bring a Stanley Cup to Washington, DC.
Now he’s in his second year with the Isles. A once proud franchise that set a NHL record by winning 19 consecutive playoff series between 1980 to 1984, they haven’t had much success since that run in ’93 when they lost to Montreal in the Wales Conference Final. After getting swept by Carolina in the second round last year, here they are two wins away from their first trip to the Conference Finals since those classic 90’s. A time when EA Sports came out with NHL ’93 which preceded the legendary game NHL ’94.
Under Trotz, these Isles do it with grit by outworking and outhustling opponents. They grind them down. Just ask the Panthers and Caps. Trotz’ former team was no match for them, falling in five. They at least made it interesting by winning Game Four and taking the Isles to overtime before Mat Barzal scored a beautiful series winner on a breakaway. That ended former assistant Todd Reirden’s two years as Washington coach. Trotz knew it. Just re-watch the handshake.
Now, these scrappy New York Islanders lead the Philadelphia Flyers two games to one thanks to a 3-1 win on Saturday night. They overcame a strong Flyers start by scoring the last three goals in the final two periods.
Game Three was played in the trenches. There were plenty of board battles and defensive minded hockey in a tight game that lacked room. Tyler Pitlick struck first on a good shift from the Philly third line. He used a screen to beat Semyon Varlamov for the only goal of the first period.
After that, it was the resilient Isles who responded by picking up their play. They outshot the Flyers 11-1 after the goal. The momentum swung on two strong shifts late in the first. The relentless pressure forced Carter Hart to make some saves.
Eventually, the harder working Islanders’ tenacious style took over. They consistently hounded the Flyers in a lopsided second. It was total domination. As the Islanders forecheck kept coming, their shot total increased while Philadelphia barely tested Varlamov. He deserves credit for staying focused. He made a couple of key saves when the Flyers tested him.
The unique aspect about the Trotz Islanders is they are a T-E-A-M. He rolls four lines and trusts all three pairs. The additions of Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Andy Greene have made them deeper. They’re hard to play against. Pageau continues to score big goals while winning key draws. Greene has replaced Johnny Boychuk in the lineup and supplied the grit and determination Trotz prefers.
When you look at their roster, no one blows you away. Not even the skilled Barzal, who used his speed to set up Matt Martin for the tying goal during the second. Barzal was on with Martin, which typifies how Trotz coaches. He had his top center with a solid fourth liner who normally plays with Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.
As his team ran out of steam, not once did Alain Vigneault change his lines or alter the strategy. A very successful coach whose resume speaks for itself, the former bench boss of the Canucks and Rangers, who guided them to Stanley Cup Final appearances, emphasizes more of an aggressive offensive system. While he continues to do a good job, there remains some doubt if he’ll make the necessary adjustments to turn the series around. Game Four is tonight.
On both Islander goals in the middle stanza, sloppy Flyers turnovers were the reason for their demise. With time winding down in the period, they somehow allowed Derick Brassard to find Leo Komarov for the game-winner with five and a half seconds left. Brassard outhustled both Matt Niskanen and Travis Sanheim behind the Flyers net.
Trotz reinserted Brassard and was rewarded. A very good player for the Blueshirts who produced in the postseason and earned the nickname Big Game Brass, the center isn’t as consistent now. So, he was a healthy scratch for the first two games of the series with Trotz going with physical specimen Ross Johnston. It’s no surprise Brassard played an inspired game. Players respond to Trotz.
When Anders Lee was able to fool Hart with a backhand for a power play goal early in the third, that was it. The Islander captain delivered the knockout blow.
Even though the Flyers were allowed to attack more with Trotz opting to protect the two goal lead, they never could get the one goal needed to make things interesting. Instead, players complained to the refs about not receiving calls. They didn’t earn it. It wasn’t until Lee was penalized late that Vigneault pulled his goalie for a six-on-four.
The Flyers held a 12-4 edge in shots. But nothing got past Varlamov, whose best stop was a reflex leg save with his left pad to rob Joel Farabee. He got across and read the play perfectly. Kevin Hayes had the rookie set up only to see him denied. He couldn’t quite elevate the puck.
It is interesting to note that the top line that includes a clearly struggling Claude Giroux remained intact. The proud Flyers captain isn’t the same player. Yet Vigneault kept him with Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek. They were ineffective. In the quick turnaround later, he might want to reconsider flipping Giroux with leading scorer Travis Konecny or Farabee, who gets his nose dirty for a first-year player.
The third line of Pitlick, Scott Laughton and James van Riemsdyk remained effective. They were the Flyers’ most consistent due to working below the dots and generating a heavy forecheck. Vigneault should’ve played them more. Instead, he didn’t deviate from the game plan.
That’s the one issue I had with the classy coach here. He didn’t always change it up when it was needed. It cost the Rangers in a couple of series. Has he learned from past mistakes, or is this the same coach whose teams came up short for the Cup? We’ll have a better answer this evening.
While you wonder if Vigneault can get his team to adjust their style to match the Isles’ willingness to get dirty, you know Trotz will continue to emphasize that gritty style that makes his team easy to respect. A hard thing to admit as a rival fan.
The Islanders get contributions from everyone. If the trainer played, he’d contribute. That’s why Trotz is so easy to like. He gets the most out of his players. They might not blow you away, but get it done. Even if it’s ugly, you can’t help but admire their commitment.
By no means is this series over. However, the Flyers better get Game Four. If not, I can’t see them winning three straight against this team. Ditto for the Bruins, who are in all kinds of trouble against a very determined Lightning.
We’ll see where things go.