At the onset of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Islanders captain John Tavares said his team had learned a lot from their previous two trips to the postseason. Learned through hardship, Tavares said he and the Islanders had a better idea of what it takes to advance in the postseason.
Tavares set the tone for the Islanders in their entire first round series against the Florida Panthers and in a fitting moment, scored the game-tying and game-winning goals in Game 6. Tavares – who waited seven seasons in the NHL before seeing the second round – and the Islanders finally know what it takes to advance.
It really takes so much from so many people and the Islanders got contributions from everybody to beat the Panthers. It takes a goalie stealing a game, like Thomas Greiss’ 47-save performance in Game 5 and his 40+ save performances in Game 1 and 6.
It takes conditioning, as the Islanders went to overtime three times – including two trips to double-overtime twice – played back-to-back games and three games in four nights.
“You’re fighting exhaustion,” Cal Clutterbuck said with stitches in his nose and blood in his beard on Sunday night. “You’ve got overtime games, a three-out-of-four, three-hour flights in between and ending games at 1 a.m. There’s a lot going on and mentally you just have to overcome the other team on the other side. You have to stick with it and keep pushing forward. If we stop with a minute left Sunday, then we’re going back and playing Game 7 in Florida. You just have to keep going.”
It takes unlikely heroes; a rookie like Alan Quine, who scored the double-OT winner in Game 5 and assisted on the game-winning goals in Games 1 and 6, or defensemen like Thomas Hickey, who scored the winner in Game 3.
It takes special teams, as the Islanders went 5-for-21 in the series after going 0-for-14 against Washington last season. It takes luck, a few breaks and an eye in the sky, of course referencing the game-changing challenge in Game 3.
It takes resiliency. The Islanders overcame key injuries to Jaroslav Halak, Mikhail Grabovski, Anders Lee and Travis Hamonic down the stretch, as well as injuries to Ryan Pulock and Josh Bailey in the playoffs, adopting a next-man up mentality.
“We’ve gone through so much that for me what it means is the guys battled,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “The last two months of the season we lost a lot of players, and it didn’t matter who we put in the lineup - they found a way.”
It takes maturity, to battle back from deficits like the Islanders did in Games 1, 3 and 6. It’s learning how to put a poor period or game behind you, and rebounding from Game 4 with a strong effort in Game 5. It’s controlling the ebbs and flows of a game and a series and not letting them control you.
It takes belief, not only in the ability to win games, but belief and trust in the group. The Islanders kept their core together through a long rebuild and through two quick outs in the postseason. For many of them, that was what made the series win on Sunday night so satisfying.
“We’ve gone through some dark days together,” Matt Martin said. “There’s a big group of us that have been a part of a 25-game losing streak, being the laughingstock of the league and having a lot of negative media around us. To go through all of this together and we obviously had some key additions, but it feels good to do it together, especially after last season’s loss in Game 7. [General Manager Garth Snow], Capuano and the coaches stuck to their guns and believed in us and we couldn’t be happier right now.”
It takes a lot, but the Islanders have finally learned a lesson on what it takes to win in the National Hockey League. They aren’t at their goal yet, but as a group they collectively know more about winning than they did the day, week or year before.
They’ve gotten over the hump of trying to win the fourth game, so now they can focus on the next task, learning what it takes to win the fourth series.