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On the Road with the Islanders

An inside look at the New York Islanders California road trip

by Cory Wright WrightsWay / New York Islanders

Beneath the stands at SAP Center, Jason Chimera stands hunched over outside the visitor's locker room. Soon he's joined by Mathew Barzal and goalie Thomas Greiss, who's flexing his glove and blocker as he prepares for what's going to be a 40-save performance. As the lights in the arena bowl dim and the pregame videos plays on the scoreboard, more teammates file out into the hallway, tapping shin pads, shaking hands and getting each other pumped up. 

Greiss leads them out towards the ice in single file. Some drop their hands back for a quick high-five as they turn the corner and walk through the tunnel. Aside from a few west coast Islanders fans cheering their entry into the still-dark rink, the team swims alone in the Shark Tank.

The Islanders score a gut-check win in San Jose, their first road win of the season. It's not without some adversity, as the Sharks dictate the pace of play in the opening 10 minutes, but thanks to Greiss, the Islanders get out of the period 1-1. They take a 2-1 lead in the second on Brock Nelson's third goal of the season, which serves as some revenge for a high hit on Adam Pelech on the same shift. Greiss comes up big again during a third-period siege and the Islanders take two points. 

It's a team-building moment; going into a hostile building, standing up for one another and finding a way to grind out a win. 

"Anytime you go through experiences like that as a group it brings you closer together," Josh Bailey said. "Knowing you have each other's backs after a bad game or a good game, I think you all stick together and it's always nice to know you have everyone behind you."

Video: Greiss backstops Islanders past Sharks in 3-1 victory

NHL road trips breed team-building. There's an us-against-the-world mentality on the road and for eight days, it's the Islanders and no one else, jetting from city to city, playing games, riding buses and sharing meals. 

"Whether it's the times you're in the trenches with each other during a game or after the game having some dinner talking about the game and goofing around, It's just good bonding," Bailey said.

The road trip started Monday evening with a cross-country flight from New York to California. On board, the coaches sit at the front of the plane, breaking down video, talking strategy and preparing for the next game. The players sit in the back, some playing cards, some sleeping, others reading or catching up on shows.

The five rows of team staff are the barrier, but on every flight, players are summoned to the front of the plane to go over individual video or to chat with coaches. With so many postgame flights, these on-board meetings can be happening at 1 a.m., but pro hockey isn't a 9-5 job. 

The team plane is a luxurious way to travel. Roomy first-class style seats, catered meals from steakhouses and healthy, gourmet snacks delivered by a flight staff that knows everyone by name.

"You get catered hand and foot and treated like a king," Chimera said. "As you get older and talk to people away from the game, they say don't ever stop playing. Keep playing as long as you can." 

At 38, Chimera's appreciation has grown with each year he's played. Mathew Barzal, the 20-year-old rookie, is at the other end of the age spectrum, but his appreciation for the plane travel stems from four years of marathon bus trips in the Western Hockey League. After surviving the 20-hour rides from Seattle to Brandon, Manitoba, or the 16-hour trips from Seattle to Saskatchewan, he can't help but smile when the topic of travel comes up. 

"I love it. I mean this is kind of what you dream about when you're a kid, traveling to all of these places," Barzal said. "When we ride on the charters now, I don't even know how I did a 16-hour bus ride to Saskatoon. You sleep having your own two-by-two area and then you have feet in your mouth in the middle of the night, you wake up and you have somebody else's jacket on you."

There's still the odd travel hiccup, even for the Islanders. On Wednesday afternoon the team bus is caught in traffic on Route 55 on their way to Honda Center for a game against the Ducks. It's just your average California congestion, but it doesn't discriminate. It takes nearly an hour for the usually 20-minute trip. 

Pre-game bus rides are quiet and a feeling of focus permeates. There's not a lot of chit-chat, but rather a lot of headphones. What's on them is anyones guess. 

There are a few unwritten rules on the team bus. Like on the plane, coaches and staff sit up front, players sit in the back. Rookies get off the bus last and if you're late, you're fined. Also, be quiet on the bus, though that's just good etiquette. Even after a win, the bus rides are muted. 

"Before games everyone is getting focused," Bailey said. "When we get in the room though we like to keep it loose and kind of have our routines and whatnot. After the games we expect to win so if we win we're not overly pumped up on the bus and if we lose, we know we have to be better, so it's always kind of a quiet demeanor." 

There's contemplation on the ride back from Honda Center after the Islanders 3-2 loss to the Ducks. It's a game the Islanders felt they played well enough to win, but they run into a hot goalie in John Gibson, who has a 39-save night. 

The Islanders usually fly to their next destination after the game, but with an 11:30 p.m. curfew at San Jose's airport, they stay the night and make the short hop the next day. 

"It's kind of an interesting schedule as you fly around the world," Head Coach Doug Weight said.

Instagram from @ny_islanders: The highly anticipated return of hockey players in suits. �� #Isles

The team sets up shop at Sharks ICE in San Jose on Thursday and Friday, practicing in the four-rink facility. There's an audience for both practices, with teenage hockey players pressed up against the glass between games in a youth hockey tournament. Weight proves to be popular wherever he goes, getting interrupted twice during his media availability by other coaches and hockey people just wanting to say hi. 

It's a little tense on Friday, as Jordan Eberle misses a day of practice after taking a hit during Thursday's skate, but otherwise it's a good regroup before Saturday's game. Eberle returns against the Sharks, as does Cal Clutterbuck, who had missed three games with an lower-injury that left his hip and groin various shades of purple.

The two hard practice days yield a win Saturday, but the Islanders fall Sunday in LA. John Tavares was within inches of tying the game with 20 seconds left, putting a sharp-angled shot - he's nearly on the goal line at the side of the net - through the crease. 

It's still fresh for Tavares when he speaks to the media five minutes after the final horn, but the Islanders captain is always accountable and available, win or lose. The Islanders are frustrated with the result and while Tavares says the power play - that he leads - needs to be better, there's no finger pointing. It's easy to come together as a team after a win - the test is how they pick each other up after a loss. 

"All we can do is wake up tomorrow, and find a way to turn the tide and be better," Tavares said. 

Video: NYI@LAK: Bailey ties game, Ladd earns 500th point

Four stalls to the left of Tavares, Mathew Barzal is taking off his skates. If there's a good moment to take out of Sunday's game, it's that the rookie collected his first NHL point, an assist on Josh Bailey's second period goal. In the moment, he's excited, crossing off one of his childhood dreams, but the adrenaline of a tight game puts it on the back burner. He'll be able to look back on it later with more satisfaction, though he may have to wrestle Andrew Ladd for the puck, as Ladd picked up his 500th career point with the secondary assist. 

The Islanders spend the night in LA to avoid a red-eye flight to New York. Technically, there's one game left on the road trip as they take on the Rangers on Thursday at MSG, but for all intents and purposes, they're going home. 

Chimera is excited to trade in FaceTime for actual face time with his wife and kids, and Bailey gets to go home and spend some time with his newborn son, Mack. The time away from family is the downside of the constant travel during the season, but there's still something special about the camaraderie and experience of an NHL road trip.

"There's goods and bads. As you get older, you miss your family, but it's just nice to go get dinner with the guys you don't shoot the you know what with too often," Chimera said. "It's pretty unbelievable."

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