Written off before the season, the New York Islanders accomplished something most people thought they couldn't do at the onset of the season - clinch a playoff berth.
On Saturday night, after a commanding 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres, the Isles punched their ticket to the postseason and proved a lot of onlookers wrong in the process.
"It's fulfilling," Head Coach Barry Trotz said. "The strength of this team has been its backbone, not its wishbone, or wishing wins, this team had to go and work for wins. They have. It's good to know that we'll at least get an invite to the party."
There was belief inside the room at the start of the season, but not much outside of it, as the pre-season prognostications weren't kind to the Islanders. ESPN pegged the Islanders' defense and goalies 29th out of 31 teams, while the forwards were ranked 24th. Deadspin ran a headline "A 2018-19 NHL Season Preview Of Every Team, From Best To Islanders." The Hockey News predicted the Isles would finish under 83.5 points. The Isles currently sit at 99 points, one point back of the Metro Division lead.
"A lot of people didn't think that was going to happen except for the guys in this room," captain Anders Lee said on Saturday morning. "It's a long season and we've worked extremely hard to get to this point. It would be a big validation for us in this room and be nice for us to prove as many people as we can wrong."
Video: The YES Effect
Clinching a playoff berth isn't to be mistaken for reaching the promised land, but it was a goal set out by the team at the beginning of the season.
Just to get this far, the Islanders had to undergo an identity change. In one season under Trotz, the Isles went from allowing the most goals in the league to becoming top-two in goals against. Trotz held a video session at the beginning of the year highlighting the previous season's mistakes and from there the team bought in to his defense-first, highly-structured system.
This season the Isles have become a model for team defense, allowing a stingy 2.38 goals-against per game (first in the NHL), while tying a team record for most shutouts in the season (10). Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have each posted five shutouts and are in the running for the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed.
When their style works, the Islanders have been able to suffocate even some of the highest-octane teams in the league. The Islanders have held the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are second in the NHL with 277 goals this season, to one goal in their two games. They were the first team to shut out the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning - albeit in a 1-0 shootout loss - and blanked the Washington Capitals in Trotz's return on the second night of a back-to-back no less.
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Islanders clinch a playoff spot
When they deviate from the team-first structure, the result can go the other way, as evidenced by back-to-back shutout losses in March, but resiliency has been another hallmark of Trotz's club. The Islanders have only suffered one three-game losing streak, all the way back on Nov. 5-10.
Trotz has a philosophy of sorts and he's reiterated it throughout the year. If you want to go somewhere fast, go by yourself. If you want to go somewhere far, go as a group. The Islanders have bought in.
"Our game is predicated on everyone being on the same page," Trotz said in Winnipeg. "We don't have any individual who can carry us, maybe our goaltenders the odd night, but there is no individual on our team who can put us on their shoulders and say 'okay, I'm going carry us'. We have to do it as a group."
The ice time and responsibilities have been spread out. Brock Nelson (18:03 TOI/GP) is the only Islanders forward who plays over 18 minutes a game. Only two players, Ryan Pulock (22:20) and Nick Leddy (21:34) average over 20 minutes per game. Every regular Isles forward plays over 10 minutes a night.
"This is the first winning team I've been a part of that's really been 'win by committee,'" Jordan Eberle said. "We've done a good job of whether it's Casey's line, or my line, or Brock's line, we have different lines stepping up each night. Maybe your minutes go down, but we seem to play better when we're winning by committee and everyone is playing well."
While they clinched a playoff berth with an assertive 5-1 win, the Isles are content playing in low-event, low-scoring games and trading individual stats for wins, especially in the wake of how last season's run-and-gun style ended up. For the players, trading stats for wins is a worthwhile deal.
"There's not a single guy in this room that's not going to sacrifice individual stuff for the team or for playoffs," Mathew Barzal told reporters after the Isles' 2-1 win over Montreal on March 14. "Personally, I've never been to the playoffs and a lot of guys here haven't really had too much of a taste. That's what we're focused on here now. Not numbers or goal scoring. Whether we win 1-0 or 5-4, it doesn't matter to us."
Now that they've qualified for the postseason, there's still work to be done. The final three games will go a long way in determining playoff seeding and the Isles are looking to secure home ice for the first time since 1988. At a boisterous building like the Coliseum, that atmosphere can go a long way in the opening round.
"It's gratifying for sure. It's something that we sought after at the beginning of the season," Martin said. "The validation is just for ourselves and our fans and the people who supported us. We know there's still a lot of work to do. This is just the first step of what hopes to be a long spring."