HARD HITS: What can be learned from the Islanders’ run


It’s not too often I write about a bitter rival. However, the Islanders made it impossible not to devote a few posts to them due to their great run in these very unpredictable and strange Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Give credit where credit is due. When we last saw them, the Islanders were struggling mightily in the abbreviated regular season that got paused due to the pandemic in mid-March. In fact, they weren’t even in the regular NHL playoffs when play was stopped following March 11. Winless in seven games including a pair of losses to the rising Rangers, it looked like they were worn out. Maybe that taxing style coach Barry Trotz demands out of his players was starting to have an adverse effect.

Here’s the thing. Even with the 10 to 11 games left, we’ll never know definitively if the Isles would’ve missed the postseason. The same way we don’t know if the younger Blueshirts would’ve beaten out teams like the Islanders, Panthers, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes for one of two wildcards. It’s likely they would’ve fell a little short. Instead, they were included in the expanded format that provided hockey fans with an extra best-of-five Play In series. It afforded the top four teams in each conference a bye as they played a round robin to determine the highest seeds.

Ask the Capitals or Flyers how that turned out. Neither could handle the gritty and physical style of the Islanders. They did the same thing to the Caps that they did to the Penguins a year ago after taking care of the flawed Panthers in four. Speaking of which, so Mike Kitchen is the fall guy for Joel Quenneville’s inability to adjust his team’s open style?

UPDATE: Thanks to Ryan, who filled me in on why Kitchen was fired. Even if I think the rest of his reply is very offensive and wrong, he took the time to read and correct me on an important detail.

If true, it’s understandable why the Panthers let him go. Even if there may have been an incident with a player, you cannot cross that line. It’s inexcusable. My apologies for not being up to date.

As for the Flyers, they were lucky to even get to a Game Seven. They were dominated for most of the second round series by the hungrier and stronger Isles. Many people took the Islanders including yours truly for that exact reason. They rolled four lines and were six deep on the blueline with two capable goalies in Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, who’ll leave with Ilya Sorokin ready to backup next season.

As good as the Trotz system is, Team President and GM Lou Lamoriello deserves a lot of credit for key additions such as Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Andy Greene and even bringing back popular fourth liner Matt Martin in ’18-19. It was the Identity Line comprising of Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck that defined the hardworking style of the orange and dark navy blue. Their no-nonsense style established exactly how Trotz wanted to play. It’s no surprise that both Martin and Clutterbuck were effective players during their run.

They came an overtime away from playing a Game Seven for a crack at the franchise’s first Stanley Cup appearance since the end of the great dynasty when the Oilers finally beat them in ’83-84. A Clutterbuck goalpost late in regulation from a do or die seventh game. Who would’ve ever thought that was possible? Well, you know the players and coaching staff believed. So too did most of their fans.

Once you get a taste of success, it rubs off. This was no fluke. The Islanders made the second round in 2019 by taking apart Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Round One. They repeated the formula against Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson and a good Washington team that had won before. Was it a special circumstance that aided them? Absolutely. Grinding teams like the Islanders and Stars, who take on the Lightning in Game One of the Cup Final later, benefited from the long break. It was the same for everyone.

So, there are no excuses for teams that under performed. They all had the same time frame. They had shortened camps and a couple of exhibition games to get ready. It didn’t help the Blues against the Canucks. It hurt the Golden Knights, who were a trendy pick to win the Cup. Their scoring dried up against Vancouver reliever Thatcher Demko and Conn Smythe candidate Anton Khudobin, who’s the biggest reason for the Stars’ success.

The Flyers found it tough to get through the disciplined Islander defense. They needed sudden death to win all three games including Games Five and Six to reach a deciding seventh game. Then fell apart in a lifeless performance that was so bad, it invoked memories of Alain Vigneault’s’ 11-12 Canucks no show in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup against the Bruins at home. As bad as the conclusion of the 2015 Conference Final was with the Lightning shutting out the Rangers with big third period goals by Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov, at least they were banged up. It still was mind numbing that they scored zero goals at MSG in the final two home games. Weird.

The Islanders wouldn’t have gone so far without the strong play of the cohesive second line centered by Brock Nelson. He scored and set up clutch goals. Whether it was Anthony Beauvillier delivering a key finish or Josh Bailey finding an open teammate for a goal, that was their best trio. Trotz never broke them up. What if Nelson had converted that shorthanded breakaway versus Andrei Vasilevskiy? They’d still be playing tonight.

You had even Derick Brassard show some old form of Big Game Brass in a couple of wins. He isn’t the same player he was on Broadway, but his postseason should earn him a job for next year. He still has some good skill and vision. It’s just the defensive issues and bad penalties that make him frustrating. No wonder Trotz handled him with kid gloves. He used Ross Johnston in a big game and it worked.

The Stanley Cup winning coach, who the Caps foolishly let go, pushed a lot of right buttons. He knew when to give Greiss a start against the Flyers. Then went back to Varlamov, who was brilliant in defeat against the ultra talented Lightning. That 46 save performance will be remembered by the loyal Islanders fans. The same fans who didn’t understand why management moved on from Robin Lehner, who once again can hit the market after being rented by Vegas. Does he stay put spelling the end for Marc-Andre Fleury? We’ll see.

What if Mat Barzal shot the puck more? Or didn’t always try to carry the puck over the opposing blueline through everyone. A superb skater and playmaker, the young center could be a lot better if he altered his approach. There’s nothing wrong with dumping the puck in and allowing players like Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle to go in and get it.

That’s how the playoffs are played. It isn’t all skill and finesse. That’s something the Rangers learned against the Hurricanes in the most uncompetitive Preliminary Series. They were exposed. Especially the lack of depth and edge. Areas that John Davidson and Jeff Gorton must address in a off-season that promises to be exciting with the NHL Draft moved up to October 6. Get ready for Alexis Lafreniere.

You look at the Isles’ supporting lines and that made a huge difference. Pageau was again his usual self scoring clutch goals while winning key draws and playing penalty kill for Trotz. Though his scoring dried up against the league’s best goalie in Vasilevskiy, the effort was there. At the time that trade was made, many laughed at all the draft picks Lamoriello gave up to Ottawa. But he wisely signed Pageau to an extension. He makes them better. Think the Senators are getting such high picks if the Isles continue to make the playoffs and go far?

Having a deep defense helps. Nick Leddy is reborn under Trotz. He logs big minutes and plays much more consistent because defense is emphasized. Ryan Pulock didn’t score as much despite his big shot, but he’s a solid all around top four defenseman the team relies on. Devon Toews has become a future along with Scott Mayfield in the top six. Adam Pelech somehow played with a broken wrist before he couldn’t go anymore in Game Six. Encouraging was that Noah Dobson looked good in his postseason debut.

Trotz got the most out of former Devil Greene, who even scored a couple of big goals to go with all those diving blocks. He’ll likely walk. Retirement is an option even though it looks like he can still help a team. He certainly knows how to play the position and can be an asset in a bottom pair role. That experience counts for something.

Even Johnny Boychuk reminded people that he still could come in and play the kind of determined and scrappy hockey needed at this time of year. I wonder what will be for him moving forward. The Isles will make room for Dobson.

Here’s a question. As good as they played, do the Islanders dip into free agency and add some more skill? I bet Barzal would’ve loved to play with Artemi Panarin. He wanted the bright lights of Broadway. Will he be rewarded with the league MVP like Taylor Hall was in Newark once? Or perhaps his own peers will recognize the special season he had.

The Isles also need to find out about Kieffer Bellows. He has good hands and should be capable of becoming a decent finisher who can play on the power play. An area they can get better at.

So, how much emphasis will team put on adding more grit and physicality following the Stanley Cup? Even the Lightning knew they needed it. Are they even here without unsung heroes like Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Pat Maroon, Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli, Cedric Paquette, Eric Cernak, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn supply? Those kind of rugged players will be important versus the Stars, who bring a junkyard dog approach to each game.

You look at the two teams left. Sure. Each has stars with the Lightning boasting three of the world’s best in Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point along with Ondrej Palat. Then you have the Stars, who have Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg to go with skilled forwards Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov and Tyler Seguin, who’s struggling. However, key additions like vets Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry have helped. It’s also been a breakout Summer for Denis Gurianov. Plus gritty types like Blake Comeau, Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak have been instrumental in their first Stanley Cup appearance since 2000.

It shapes up to be a hard fought series that could go long. Will we see Steven Stamkos at some point for the Bolts? Time shall tell.

One thing is clear. The perception that only great skaters and skill wins has been erased. Ask the Caps if they would’ve won without Tom Wilson or Brooks Orpik. Ditto for the Blues, who got strong support from David Perron, Oskar Sundqvist, Maroon (who broke the Stars back), Sammy Blais and Robert Bortuzzo.

Those are the under appreciated gritty types who help you win in the playoffs. They’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. I hope the Rangers are listening.

BODY CHECKS

Cirelli certainly boosted his stock with his clutch goal in sudden death that rescued the Lightning from a nerve racking Game Seven. He might not be producing a ton this postseason, but the two-way checking pivot is the kind of player who should draw interest around the league. He’s a Group II free agent this Fall.

It’ll be strange to see former Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh playing in his second Stanley Cup Final for Blueshirts South the Lightning. He still is a solid top four defenseman who understands how hard it is to get back. Especially after what happened in 2015, which ironically came against the Bolts. Good luck to him in his quest for the Cup and the same for Kevin Shattenkirk, who has had a good postseason fitting in better with Tampa.

How dominant is Victor Hedman this postseason? Try this Dominant!

The last time the Rangers played for the Cup, they had Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett before the Tanner Glass era. I kid. I kid. But you need those types to be successful. Whether it’s a big shift that changes the momentum, key hit or huge goal, you want to be able to rely on your fourth line. Brendan Lemieux can be part of the solution as long as he stays away from bad penalties, plays on the edge and draws them. Some more goals would help too.

It looks like the end of an era in St. Louis. They have told Alex Pietrangelo he can test the market. What a shame. He’s been a great defenseman and valuable leader for the Blues for better than a decade. He never finished in the top three for the Norris which goes to the best defenseman. But anyone who’s seen him play knows how good a player he is. So, where will the 30-year old veteran top pair righty go? Would the Devils have interest? Their D needs help. Or maybe they’ll be in on Torey Krug assuming the Bruins can’t afford him. Such is life in the cap era.

Come to think of it, the Oilers can use a good, two-way defenseman like Pietrangelo. Their defense was exposed by the Blackhawks, who never would’ve qualified for the playoffs is it was a normal year. Let’s hope things improve in 2021. That hopefully includes fans returning to cheer their teams.

Smart move by the Canadiens sacrificing a fifth round pick for the exclusive signing rights to defenseman Joel Edmundson. A player Carolina wasn’t going to bring back due to a surplus of D. The Habs signed the lefty defenseman to a modest four-year contract worth an average cap hit of $3.5 million. A former Cup winner with St. Louis, he should have some good hockey left. They needed a left D to help out Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. It’ll take some pressure off Victor Mete and lessen the high expectations for Alexander Romanov ‘if’ he plays in Montreal.

The Habs are having a good off-season so far having added Edmundson and acquiring Jake Allen from the Blues to become the backup behind Carey Price. What else is coming?

I can’t seem to figure out what Larry Brooks’ issue is with Tony DeAngelo. It isn’t easy to replace the production DeAngelo supplied from the back end. He had excellent chemistry with Panarin and Mika Zibanejad on the power play, even strength and was a key performer in the threeonthree overtime. It’s just like Brooks to add his annoying political viewpoint without admitting it when it comes to a good player like DeAngelo, whose support of current President Trump has been treated unfairly by fair-weather fans who call themselves bloggers.

I don’t care what political affiliation you support. I care what you can do on the ice. There’s no reason to trade Tony D. Especially with Nils Lundkvist spending the season in Europe. Brooks is nothing but a tool. It’s way past time he stops doing the Rangers bidding with foolish suggestions that have no merit. Brooks’ is almost at his expiration date. Go have a shot of Jack Daniels with Jim Dolan.

So far, not one positive test for COVID-19 in the playoff bubble. The NHL needs to be congratulated for the tremendous job they’ve done. A challenging pandemic has been handled extremely well. Kudos to commissioner Gary Bettman, who’s back in my good graces. Dare I say it. He’s the best sports commissioner at the moment.

If you’re a Mets, Jets or Giants fan, you are already counting down the days to hockey training camp for the area locals. At least I got the Yankees.

Wishing any Jewish followers a Happy New Year! L’Shana Tova! May it be sweet, fulfilling and better.

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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3 Responses to HARD HITS: What can be learned from the Islanders’ run

  1. Ryan David Gill says:

    Now I see why nobody follows this blog. Kitchen was fired for kicking a player. DeAngelo is a proud racist who enjoys threatening people on Facebook. Brooks works for the most far right paper in the country and is hardly anti-Trump (Though, he should be) Anyway, you’re a clown.

    Like

    • Derek Felix says:

      I didn’t know that. So I’ll correct it. Second, you took the time to read it and got nothing out of it other than disgusting liberal rhetoric. You are a disgraceful human being. Move to China or try Iran. Like your hero Obama.

      Like

    • Derek Felix says:

      It appears you left something out too.

      What a shock. Not condoning what Kitchen did as that crosses the line. But it’s clearly the players calling the shots. Quenneville did a lousy job.

      For you to claim DeAngelo as that is sad and says a lot about your lack of character. These are the losers you follow. Notice you didn’t say anything about the original point of the post. Have fun staring at charts and weird graphs in your basement.

      Like

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