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Islanders trying to keep it together vs. Lightning

'Special group' not ready to head toward summer of uncertainty

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

BRANDON, Fla. -- After a flight and bus ride Saturday, the New York Islanders gathered in a cramped, cinderblock dressing room in a recreational rink in the Tampa suburbs. They talked about last year's exit interviews and how far they had come since, earning 100 points for the second straight regular season, winning the franchise's first Stanley Cup Playoff series since 1993.

They always talk about "brotherhood," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said, and now they face elimination against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Sunday (3 p.m.; NBC, SN, TVA Sports). A loss would mean more than just the end of the season. 

"Guys want to continue to play," Capuano said. "They want to come to work the next day and be around each other, and that's what it's about. We just talked about team - team and togetherness - and just work as hard as you can and let your work ethic dictate the outcome of the game."

No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to dwell on it. But everyone knows: No matter what happens Sunday or beyond, there could be major changes this offseason. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Matt Martin are pending unrestricted free agents. Travis Hamonic has requested a trade for personal reasons so he can be closer to home in Manitoba. 

Video: TBL@NYI, Gm4: Okposo gives Islanders an early lead

That's two top-six forwards, a member of perhaps the NHL's best fourth line and a top-pair defenseman. That's four players who were drafted by the Islanders, came up through the organization, helped make the team relevant again and moved from Nassau Coliseum on Long Island to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. That's four longtime members of the brotherhood. 

Nielsen, 32, was a third-round pick (No. 87) in the 2002 NHL Draft. Okposo, 28, was a first-rounder (No. 7) in 2006. Martin, 26, was a fifth-rounder (No. 148) in 2008. Hamonic, 25, was a second-rounder (No. 53) in 2008.

Who stays? Who goes? Who replaces who goes? Who knows? 

"We talk about it at the start of the year," Capuano said. "But we never bring it up again." 

They don't have to. 

"The brotherhood is here because the guy next to you and across from you, you don't know if you're going to play with him again," Capuano said. "And it's a special group. It's a good bond. That's what we talk about all the time. It's no different than being out on the schoolyard with your brothers. If something happens, you're very protective of them. And that's the way we want to be. We want pack mentality. We want to be a close-knit group. And we want to battle for one another." 

The Islanders have battled hard in this series. They feel they could be ahead 3-1 even though they are behind 3-1. After the teams split the first two games in Tampa, the Islanders outplayed the Lightning in both games in New York. But they blew two third-period leads and lost both games early in overtime.

After Game 3, Capuano called it "demoralizing." Still, he stayed positive, and he was even more positive Saturday, focusing on the good things they had done, saying he was confident things would turn around.

"If we play like that," Capuano said, "that's Islander hockey."

The Islanders could have stayed off the ice Saturday. But they held an optional 30-minute skate, and most everyone participated. No one seemed to mope. At times, they looked like brothers playing shinny at the local rink, laughing, joking, having fun.

Video: TBL@NYI, Gm4: Greiss knocks down Kucherov's slap shot

"We really enjoy each other as a group, as a team," Hamonic said. "You never want that to end. … We've got different voices on the team, whether it's the coaching staff or the players in here. I think that's something that works to our benefit is that we've got a lot of leaders in here. I think at different moments there's different people that say things. I just think we're ready for the game tomorrow. I think that you lose two overtime games and we've played pretty well."

The biggest voice among the players belongs to captain John Tavares, the face of the franchise, a finalist for the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award. He kept in mind the thing that makes a team a brotherhood forever: a championship.

"We want to win the Stanley Cup," Tavares said. "It's part of the process. You've got your back up against the wall. We have to just start out and get a win tomorrow. I don't want to make it much bigger than that.

"I think we give them everything we've got, throw everything at them, build on the good things we're doing and find a way to make the plays that we need to. Everyone keep relying on one another, feeding off each other.

"Obviously we've been through a lot all year, so want to keep it going. You've come this far. A lot of sacrifices have been made, a lot of hard work. These are the opportunities you don't want to waste." 

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