The New York Islanders know what they are getting themselves into when the puck drops for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday night in Sunrise, Fla.
They know the games will be physical, intense and emotional, the tension and bitterness building up as the series progresses. They know there will be ups and downs and that they have to have short memories, regardless of the outcome. Most importantly, they will know how to handle themselves in a Game 7, should this series get to a deciding game.
“I think a lot of us now have a really good sense of what playoff hockey is all about,” John Tavares said. “A lot of us have been able to play in physical playoff rounds in the last three years so hopefully that can pay off for us and we get over that hump and move on.”
Last season, the Islanders and Washington Capitals went seven games in a grueling first-round matchup. For the Islanders, experience was the consolation prize, but one year later, Tavares sees just playing in a winner-take-all game as an important part of the process.
“I think whether we won that game or lost that game we want to get to the ultimate goal and this is part of the process part of the journey,” he said. “That gives you some experience of how to handle yourself, how to prepare, where you can be better, and find a way to change the result.”
With the Panthers holding the home-ice advantage, the Islanders face the possibility of another Game 7 on the road. Boychuk was a part of the Boston Bruins team that lost Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, and his team came back and won a Game 7 on the road the next season in Vancouver, ultimately hoisting the Stanley Cup. He knows first-hand how valuable that experience is, however painful it can be at the time.
“It will definitely help,” Boychuk said. “Any time you lose out in playoffs you have to take the experience and learn from it. We didn’t put our best foot forward last year and we definitely learned from it because you have to take it one game at a time. It came down to one game. We know we can do better and I think we will.”
Goaltender Thomas Greiss is one of the few Islanders who has limited playoff experience, but the 30-year-old has been a part of some lengthy runs as a backup and says he won’t be surprised by the atmosphere or the intensity. He also has experience playing in the Olympics, and while he says it’s a little different, those are still high stakes games against the world’s best.
Being a part of previous postseasons still gives Greiss a leg up on the Panthers’ young core. While Jaromir Jagr has 202 playoff games and Brian Campbell (Chicago 2010), Shawn Thornton (Boston 2011) and Willie Mitchell (Los Angeles 2012 and 2014) each have Stanley Cups, their younger players have virtually no playoff experience.
For Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck – five of the Panthers top eight scorers – the playoffs are going to be a new experience and the Islanders are hoping to exploit that early in the series.
“They have a young team over there that’s probably going to be amped up,” Kyle Okposo said. “We’re going to try to take advantage of some of their nerves and try to jump out to an early lead.”
To do so, they’ll have to win at least one game in what’s going to be a raucous BB&T Center. Between the potential for rats to be thrown on the ice – an homage to the 1996 Panthers team – or a surprise visit from Kevin Spacey, the Islanders are expecting a bustling building. After playing in a very hostile Verizon Center a year ago, the Islanders are better equipped now to harness that energy.
“I’m sure they are going to get energy from it, every team does,” Okposo said. “The away team does too. You try to feed off that energy from the crowd. They aren’t cheering for you, but there’s a lot of energy in the building. We’re going to have to come out and play our game.”
Experience is often the best teacher. After a tough loss last season, it’ll be up to the Islanders to apply those lessons this season.