The New York Islanders can’t wait for this series to start.
Tuesday’s practice marked the fourth calendar day since Friday’s regular season finale at Buffalo. Although they didn’t know who they would face until Sunday night, they knew the second season was around the corner and the excitement level was at an all-time high. While the pomp and circumstance associated with the playoffs and increased media attention is something the players are soaking in, they are ready for Wednesday’s Game 1 at Pittsburgh.
“If I could play right now I would,” Travis Hamonic said, looking around a locker room full of reporters following Tuesday’s practice. “I've still got my gear on so I would jump right back out there on the ice. I think for our group in here, this is exciting and it's fun. We've had a break and are eager just to get back in a game situation. The fan base has waited a really long time too, so we’re excited for them.”
The Islanders concluded the regular season on a five-game, 10-day road swing. Their regular season finale was a day before any of the other playoff-bound teams in the Conference. After an off-day Saturday, the team has engaged in hard practices over the last three days, covering all their bases before the start of the series.
“We had some good prep work for Pittsburgh yesterday and today,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. ”Not a whole lot is going to change in our structure or how we play. But it’s good to get the guys, after that 10-day road trip, away from the rink a little bit to recharge and get focused. We worked on a few things, but at this point they know what they need to do.”
Capuano has stressed that the team cannot afford to look too far ahead in this series. While a Game 1 victory would obviously improve the team’s chances at winning the series, everyone’s focus is on the first shift.
“I think every shift we've got to make sure we're prepared and ready,” Hamonic said. “It’s a pretty hostile environment in Pittsburgh. Fans really get on you. That first game, and especially in the first period, their team is going to come hard, and we have to make sure we can weather the storm a little bit. We're not oblivious to that fact.”
So the Islanders best recourse will be to take the CONSOL Energy Center crowd out of the game as early as possible. Enter forward Matt Martin, who makes a living out of doing just that.
“You can use the crowd both ways,” Martin said. “They're going to be amped up early but it's important for us to make it a simple game and not let them get too excited about it. If we can take them out of the game early then we can use the crowd to our advantage.”
Martin added that he views going up against some of the elite talent that the Penguins boast up front not as a task, but as an opportunity to shine.
“I think these are situations where fourth line guys can really thrive,” Martin said. “Obviously it's going to be a tight-checking game. I think the top two lines are going to be up against the other two top D-pairs. It's going to be a simplified game and we have to limit their chances.”
And limiting Pittsburgh’s chances, Hamonic says, means doing the little things, or the “winning things,” as they’ve come to be known in the Islanders room.
“Everyone and their dog knows they've got a lot of high power up front,” Hamonic said. “So we can't be turning the puck over in the wrong spots. We can't be making stupid puck decisions at the wrong time. I think we have to play the clock and we have to know where we are in the game. More importantly, we have to know who we're out against. Those are all the little small details and intangibles I think we've been doing a good job throughout the season. That’s a big focal point for our team.”