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New York Islanders

Why the New York Islanders Can Still Win the Eastern Conference Finals



Barry Trotz Islanders at Devils

By Tom Callahan
Special to NYI Hockey Now

As the New York Islanders trail 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it looks like a tall order to mount a comeback against those odds but it can be done.

Tampa Bay looks like they’re on a roll, getting contributions from everyone and finding great goaltending. But I’ve seen what a Barry Trotz coached team can accomplish firsthand, and I know they’re never out of a series.

For those who may not know, I spent five years as the radio voice of the Nashville Predators, watching Trotz guide those teams to finishes many people did not expect. Getting to know him personally over the course of time, I found a coach who genuinely cared about his players and staff. Someone who could treat players like sons or skate them like they stole his family fortune.

Trotz adjusted his systems and style to the talent he had on hand, looking to wring every last ounce of potential out of his roster.

Offside Tavern Takes One Last Shift with Islanders Playoff Run

There are many teams he coached, especially in the Nashville years, that could easily be labeled “overachievers” because of him. Translation: When guys buy into the system it brings them success. And because of the person and coach Trotz is, he gets that commitment.

Now that Barry Trotz has won a Stanley Cup and a Jack Adams award, it’s a little harder to say he’s under-appreciated. But I still believe there are many people out there who don’t realize how good of a coach he is.

For many years the knock against him was he couldn’t coach superstars. Then, the guy the press would have voted “Most Likely to Never Win a Cup” in high school – Alex Ovechkin – does just that under Trotz’s tutelage. I watched him walk with Alex Radulov in a hotel in Glendale and have a hard conversation with Radulov about how he wasn’t going to play that night for going clubbing the night before. This was in the playoffs no less.

I couldn’t help but think about how much the conversation resembled that of how a father would talk to his son. Not everyone loves their coach or his decisions, but Trotz does what he thinks is best for the team and doesn’t try to sugar coat it.

When it comes to the Islanders, they resemble in many ways some of those great Predators teams of yesteryear. Stars that might have only barely been recognized or remembered out of the market. Workmanlike goaltending duos. A focus on defense, forcing mistakes and capitalizing on those chances when you get them. In fact, because they play this style of game the New York Islanders have a tremendous chance to come back against a Tampa Bay team that is so freewheeling offensively.

While it hasn’t always gone according to plan so far in the series, when the Islanders are most effective they’re:

Disrupting the neutral zone.

Forechecking effectively/aggressively

Winning board battles.

The neutral zone is much like the middle of the board in chess. Control it and you control the flow of the game. You force your opponent to attack from the outside which is much harder to do.

You also are able to mount your attacks and counterattacks right through the most option-laden portion of the playing surface.

For the Islanders, that means not allowing Tampa Bay forwards to build speed through that area and also taking away passing lanes to open up the other side of the ice. It also means not allowing the speed to back you down through the neutral zone and collapse on your goaltender defensively, giving too much time and space on zone entries and allowing the Lightning to create more opportunities. Trotz knows this is a critical area and uses his forwards to pressure the players coming through the neutral zone, hoping to force a premature dump-in, bad pass, or a straight-up turnover at center ice.

Barzal, Lee, Eberle Looking for Production with Islanders on the Brink | NYHN+

This segues right into the forecheck because if you are hurrying the defenseman’s first pass up the ice on a breakout, the forwards who normally help clog the neutral zone can quickly activate to pressure the breakout. It can also put pressure on the goaltender to handle the puck and lead to miscues on the back end that way.

If you can frustrate teams into trying for stretch passes and long-range dump-ins because of pressure, you’re giving yourself plenty of extra puck possession and countering the speed of Tampa.

Though I listed it third, board battles are really the most important thing here. You have to work hard and come out of the pile with the puck in all three zones to win games.

Forcing a battle in the offensive zone thanks to your forecheck can generate a turnover and a quick scoring chance. Neutral zone tie-ups can lead to quick counterstrikes as well, perhaps catching Tampa Bay in a change or flat-footed for odd-man situations.

In the defensive zone, it’s hard to overstate how critical these battles are. Winning possession allows you to thwart scoring threats and also buys you just that second of a breather, so important when the intensity is high.

These three keys are hallmarks of a Barry Trotz coached team, and I believe the Islanders have shown they are extremely capable of shutting down any attack when they out-hustle the opponent. With their season on the line, it’s time for New York to bring its “A” game to stay alive and perhaps eventually win this series.

I’ve always said that Barry Trotz makes the best chicken salad – you’ll have to fill in the rest of the euphemism for yourself. Time for the Isles to get back in the kitchen.

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New York Islanders

Bruce Bennett Remained in Moment While Capturing Islanders Conference Finals Run



Bruce Bennett captures handshake line

When the New York Islanders playoff run shifted to Edmonton there was only one person who regularly covered the team inside the bubble with them. It wasn’t the regular beat writers who often traveled with the team, nor was it the broadcast crew that covers all 82 of their games, plus the postseason.

No, it wasn’t any of them. Rather, it was hockey photographer and Getty’s director of hockey photography Bruce Bennett, who in four decades of shooting hockey has seen just about everything.

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“Being the only Long Island guy in the bubble is kind of bizarre,” Bennett told NYI Hockey Now during a Zoom interview from his hotel room in Edmonton. “But, to succeed in this business you need to put that wall up. Whether you’re blocking the fans out or you’re blocking the noise in the building out, which obviously we don’t have to do here. I have to block out that Long Islander in me and go ‘it’s just about you and the game and capturing the scene.'”

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - SEPTEMBER 09: Pat Maroon #14 of the Tampa Bay Lightning is checked into the goal as Semyon Varlamov #40 of the New York Islanders tends net during the second period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on September 09, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The laser-focused approach that Bennett brings to his work is something that even Islanders head coach Barry Trotz would admire, and it’s what has made him one of the best to capture some of the Islanders’ and hockey’s biggest moments. Bennett is in the middle of his 45th season photographing hockey and the 40th Stanley Cup Final he will have covered.

This one will certainly be the most unique one he’s had to work.

Bennett is just one of only a handful of photographers capturing one of the most historic Stanley Cup playoffs that the NHL has put on. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennett has been forced to snap pictures from the last row of Rogers Place because he not permitted inside the more secure areas of the bubble that the league has created around the unique 2020 postseason.

That means Bennett’s usual spot on the glass is off-limits for him.

Similar to what the players experienced, Bennett went through his own adjustment period when he began shooting games on Aug 24. Bennett arrived in the Edmonton 14 days earlier but was forced to quarantine in adherence to Canadian restrictions for anyone entering the country.

“I guess I’ve come to the realization that with that crowd going crazy that not only gets the players into the game, but it gets my head into the game more,” Bennett said. “It’s like a bubble hockey game where you’re outside looking in. The distance is a big thing. Shooting from so far away and seeing the tops of heads is odd, instead of seeing faces.”

Bennett did get a little bit of a break when the Islanders entered the Edmonton bubble for the Eastern Conference Finals.

Having that knowledge of the players and their movements made Bennett’s job easier. Similar to how a linemate gets to know a teammate’s pattern, it was the same for Bennett when he was shooting pictures.

“Where there most likely to go on the ice, where there passes are most likely to go,” Bennett explained. “Having a little bit of familiarity and being the hometown Long Island boy, trying to take the fan out of it, that’s definitely helped. It piqued my interest and getting the razzing from the two other photographers who are beside me when the Islanders give up a goal. It’s all good natured fun, but it’s definitely got my head back in the game.”

Bennett’s connection with the Islanders runs deeper than just the visits to Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center to photograph the Islanders. Bennett served as the team’s official photographer and has captured some of the most iconic images in the team’s history.

His photo of Bobby Nystrom following his Stanley Cup Winning goal from 1980 remains one of Bennett’s top memories

Bobby Nystrom

Even with that connection to the Islanders, Bennett maintained an emotional distance from what was transpiring on the ice with the Islanders. New York had been competing in the conference finals for the first time since 1993.

“I remove myself from the situation. It’s the only way to do this job,” Bennett said. “The only positive is my 95-year-old mother back in East Meadow gets her Newsday everyday and she’s clipping out my pictures with the photo credits on them. I guess that’s what I’m shooting for. … I’m very close to (the Islanders), but when I get into that arena it’s really just about the best images.”

And getting that iconic image, as Bennett has done so many times, is a simple formula for the veteran photographer. For him, it’s just about remaining focused during the course of the game and outworking the photographers around him.

Bennett does the homework before going into any game he covers. He reads newspapers, checks the hockey websites and looks at the media notes. “I’m prepared and I’m hoping when I get to a game they’re not prepared,” Bennett said.

“For us, you have to be in the game,” Bennett said. “It’s a little bit of a formula. A goalie save. A hard hit, jubilation, dejection and then you run back through it. Some creative images. Some that are off center, white ice and player on the side of the image. There is a little bit of a formulaic progression that you go through during a game.”

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New York Islanders

Islanders Fans Give Team Warm Welcome Following Surprising Postseason Run



Islanders fans

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — For a moment, standing in the parking lot of Republic Airport you would have sworn that you were at the Nassau Coliseum.

Fans walked about in New York Islanders jerseys and chanting “Let’s Go Islanders!” Motorists in their cars leaned on the horn to the same tune. That was the way Islanders fans welcomed the team back to Long Island on Friday afternoon following their Game 6 elimination loss to Tampa Bay the night before.

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What started as a post on social media about trying to welcome the Islanders home after a month and a half in the NHL’s playoff bubble, led to a sizable crowd waiting just outside the airport gates to greet the team.

“They played with a lot of heart,” Islanders fan Rich Alonzo said. “It was just an amazing thing to see how far this team has come over the 30 years of my life and just the effort they gave. They gave it their all and this is what I could do to give back to them. I’d do anything I can for this team.”

The Islanders charter flight from Edmonton landed on Long Island just after 4:15 p.m. The players disembarked to rousing cheers from the fans that tracked to the small Long Island airport, located less than 15 miles away from the Nassau Coliseum.

One fan NYI Hockey Now spoke with made the trip all the way from Patchogue in eastern Long Island. Another had left school early so he could get to Farmingdale in time to welcome the Islanders home.

Fans carried flags and homemade posters and waved them as the players got off the plane. Chants of “Varly” and “Lou” echoed around the area on several occasions, as did chants for Islanders coach Barry Trotz and star forward Mat Barzal.

“Just how hard the boys worked, they deserve a good welcome home,” Nick Wolf said. “Especially for everything they sacrificed to give us some more Islanders hockey this season. They played amazing. It’s the least we could do.”

For a number of fans on hand on Friday, this year had been the first time they had seen the Islanders go as far as they did. The Islanders hadn’t reached the Eastern Conference Finals since 1993.

So for fans like 19-year-old Taylor Hackal and her 17-year-old sister Brooke, it had been a season like no other.

“I think it’s so cool for us to be a part of it and to be young fans,” Taylor Hackal said while holding a Fathead cutout of Jean-Gabriel Pageau. “Moving forward and as we grow up we can always remember this as one of the best seasons that they’ve had. I think it’s really great.”

It was a similar feel that Anthony Galanoudis expressed.

“I was bord in 1995, so this is the deepest I’ve seen them make it,” Galanoudis said. “A lot of young fans here that missed the glory days, the dynasty days. This is our first taste of success and ever since Lou and Trotz came along I think it’s here to stay.”

Several of the Islanders waved to the fans as the got off the plane. Cal Clutterbuck motioned to the crowd several times.

And Pageau thanked Islanders fans for their support in a tweet he sent out while sitting on the bus at Republic Airport.

That surely was to the delight of Brooke Hackal, who called the addition of the centerman one of her top moments this season.

“We were automatically obsessed with him,” Brooke Hackal said. “He’s one of our best players and I think just seeing him be so successful in this playoff series is just really exciting. Looking forward to the future.”

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New York Islanders

Arnold: Islanders Have Plenty to be Proud of Following Postseason Run



New York Islanders handshake line

Even 2,400 miles away, Anders Lee’s emotions were palpable as he addressed the media after the New York Islanders 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It was the farthest Lee had gone in his career in the playoffs and it was the most significant step the franchise he captains has taken in 27 years. Ironic, when you think about, considering that it’s the same as the number on the back of his jersey.

“I can’t speak volumes more about this group and our guys,” an emotional Lee said. “The pride we take in going out there every night and playing.”

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