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Amid Trotz’s Biggest Challenge, Islanders Coach Still Preaching Silver Lining During Swoon

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New York Islanders

By Allan Kreda
Special to NYI Hockey Now

Islanders coach Barry Trotz has literally seen it all coaching in the NHL since 1998 with Nashville, Washington and the Islanders, not to mention AHL years with the Baltimore Skipjacks and Portland Pirates.

But he’s never encountered a situation as surreal as what his Islanders have faced in recent weeks leading to a staggering eight-game regulation-time losing streak for a franchise that reached the semifinals each of the past two playoffs.

“This is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced in 20-some years,’’ the coach said matter-of-factly after the Islanders were clipped 1-0 by Pittsburgh on Friday night to remain winless in four games at UBS Arena. “And I started with an expansion team.”

Trotz knows silver linings have to be discovered and employed even amid such dire hockey circumstances. The NHL finally stepped in and postponed the team’s next two games — Sunday at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers and Tuesday in Philadelphia.

Casey Cizikas became the latest Islanders player to test positive for COVID-19

“The league has the best doctors. We have to trust and we do their decisions … All we can do is respond to what their decisions are, as we have today,” Lou Lamoriello told reporters on Saturday.

With Trotz’s ability to connect the dots in the smartest ways, nuances will emerge that will help the team when its full roster returns in the weeks ahead.

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“When the chips are down you find out which guys have, I’ll just say, the threshold to stick with it,’’ Barry Trotz said in reference to his depleted squad, which is without seven players to Covid protocol plus the major injury losses of key defenseman Ryan Pulock and leading goal scorer Brock Nelson. “We’re in a real tough division and obviously we want to do well. Our fans want us to do well and they are excited. But we get hit with Covid and we get hit with injuries. Very untimely but that’s life.”

Through it all, there is opportunity.

Robin Salo has a chance to earn time on the backend with all but Scott Mayfield and Noah Dobson absent from the rotation through the four-game arena-opening homestand this week.

Callups from Bridgeport Otto Koivula, Andy Andreoff and Richard Panik have the chance to prove they can help if the Islanders somehow get back in the playoff chase.

Not to be discounted is how much the Islanders miss Jordan Eberle’s scoring touch, Nick Leddy’s smooth game at both ends of the ice and the grit of Leo Komarov.

Players who have remained healthy and escaped the injury bug continue forging ahead, trying to solve their own scoring struggles.

“Obviously it isn’t going our way but the effort is definitely there. Guys are grinding away,’’ veteran winger Matt Martin said. “We just can’t seem to get that goal but brighter days are ahead. We have to will our way and hopefully take it from there.”

Outscored 13-3 in losses to Calgary, Toronto, the Rangers and Pittsburgh in their gleaming new home, the Islanders are 5-10-2 heading into Sunday night’s game at Madison Square Garden against the surging Rangers. Last May, the Islanders sent the Rangers packing with three convincing late-season wins to finish the 56-game pandemic-truncated schedule.

Now roles are reversed with the Islanders staring at a gargantuan task of climbing back into the race without all the key cogs that made their recent playoff runs happen. They have to be patient as vital players return from Covid protocol.

Captain Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and blueliners Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara – will have to work simply to get back into game shape

struggling forwards Kyle Palmieri and J.G. Pageau (each with one goal) and Zach Parise (no goals and three assists in 17 games) must start finding the net.

“I don’t think anyone thinks the season is over,’’ Martin continued. “We’re snakebitten. We just have to stick with it. Everybody is working hard. Sometimes you have to will your way to one and the bounces come. We have to find big plays and those big moments, especially at home. We know our crowd can propel us forward and we haven’t given them a whole lot.”

Veteran defenseman Thomas Hickey has been another Bridgeport callup. He echoed Martin’s take, after the close loss to the Penguins.

“We’re working. We’re competing,” Hickey said. “It’s a group that wants a goal so bad. Guys are going hard. It’s great to be back but you go home without a win, it dampens everything.”

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Trotz said despite the power-play struggles and lack of offensive cohesion, his squad’s signature work ethic remains. Effort matters. Attitude is important. And giving up is never part of the Islanders’ DNA when you have leaders like Martin and linemates Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck starting every game with energy.

“That room is battling and there’s something to be said about that,’’ Trotz said. “We’re not getting results. I understand that we’re in a business of winning and we’re not doing it. But the worst thing is for a player to have quit in his game and I don’t see any of that.”

Trotz added that the 32-year-old Bailey – the most senior Islander with 931 career games – is likely to be the first of the Covid-affected players to return. Yet even amid the team’s dire position in the standings just over six weeks into the season, this process can’t be rushed.

“He just got out of quarantine yesterday (Friday) and hasn’t skated but he was willing to jump in and play,’’ Trotz said of Bailey’s eagerness to face the Penguins. “I can’t do that to an athlete … They’re coming back from being quarantined and now we’re going to ask them to play at the elite level. It’s not the easiest thing to do … But that’s who he is. He cares and our team cares.”

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