The Islanders were playing their way out of the postseason. The cushion of a 16-3-1 start to the season had evaporated by March. A seven-game losing streak — in a span of 11 defeats in 13 games — threatened to end their season by early April.
Then, the pandemic shut down sports.
Now, the Islanders are one win from their first Eastern Conference finals appearance in 27 years, taking a 3-1 series lead into Tuesday’s Game 5 against the Flyers at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
In this incredible and unlikely run, the Islanders have failed to close out their first two series (Florida, Washington) in their first opportunity. They are coming off a 3-1 win — marking Philadelphia’s first consecutive losses in a span of 39 games — though coach Barry Trotz believes it doubled as the team’s worst performance in the playoffs.
“We have to be better coming out because they’re gonna come with everything they’ve got,” Brock Nelson said after scoring a pair of goals in Game 4. “We’ve got to find a way to raise our level.”
No team has elevated its play more than the Islanders.
No team has won more games in either bubble. No team has given up fewer goals. No team has been so dominant in the third period, with the Islanders outscoring opponents 19-5 since arriving in Toronto, including an 8-1 edge over the Flyers.
“I think when you get to this point, the eight teams that are still left believe they can win the Stanley Cup,” Trotz said. “You don’t know how it’s gonna play out. A few years ago, I had the great fortune of standing on top of that hill.”
It has been two years since Trotz helped end the Capitals’ tortured playoff history and delivered Washington its first championship. The Islanders are convinced the coach can help end their decades-long drought, too.
“He comes in with street cred,” said MSG Networks analyst A.J. Mleczko. “He comes in fresh off winning the Cup and taking a team that had struggled in the playoffs. … The [Islanders are] willing to buy into the system because of the success that Trotz had in 2018. He comes in and he puts in this very sound defensive structure.”
And Lou Lamoriello placed the missing piece.
He did that by acquiring Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Ottawa just before the trade deadline — for three draft picks, including first- and second-round selections in the upcoming draft — and signing him to a six-year, $30 million extension. The center who helped put Ottawa within one game of the Stanley Cup finals in 2017 is solidifying his postseason reputation.
Tied with Anthony Beauvillier with a team-high seven postseason goals, Pageau has scored three times against the Flyers, including the go-ahead goal in Game 4. The 27-year-old has 19 goals in 48 career playoff games.
“The payoff for getting him is obviously paying off right away,” Nelson said. “That’s a guy you can lean on in any situation really. He plays all three zones. He does it all. He’s a guy you appreciate and love to have on your team.”
Still, the Islanders don’t possess the same top-end talent as the other remaining teams. It hasn’t mattered yet. Who’s to say it ever will?
“Is it sustainable? I’d argue it’s more sustainable without the superstars because somebody different steps up every night,” Mleczko said. “The confidence and the momentum certainly bodes well for them. … They’re so powerful in what they can provide a team, but they’re also so fragile. If you lose it, it’s really hard to get confidence and momentum back.”