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

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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.

Welcome to your new home for New York Islanders breaking news, analysis and opinion. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and don't forget to subscribe to NYHN+ for all of our members-only content from Christian Arnold and the National Hockey Now network.

New York Islanders

Islanders Players React After Eye Injury Ends Johnny Boychuk’s Career

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Johnny Boychuk

It wasn’t too loo long after Johnny Boychuk announced he was ending his 13-year NHL career that the reaction from current and former teammates started to pour in.

Johnny Boychuk spent the past six seasons as a member of the New York Islanders and the guys he took the ice with on a nightly basis praised the 36-year-old defenseman for the person and player he was. Part of the legacy Boychuk leaves behind from his time on Long Island was just how important a leader he was in the locker room.

All of that showed as players reacted to the news on social media.

“It’s been an honor to share the ice with you,” Anthony Beauvillier wrote on Instagram. “Proud to call you a friend. You’ll truly be missed. Much love JB”

Others took to Twitter to wish Boychuk well in his post-playing days and share their memories of playing alongside him.

Even former Islanders netminder Robin Lehner took a moment to honor his former teammate.

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New York Islanders

Arnold: Johnny Boychuk Helped Change Perception, Culture of New York Islanders

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New York Islanders Defenceman Johnny Boychuk (55) during warm-up before National Hockey League action between the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators

Johnny Boychuk paused several times during his Zoom call with the reporters less than an hour after news broke that his 13 year NHL career had come to an end. The emotions of the moment getting the better of him for a second or two.

The often goofy Boychuk tried to remain his usual self, but the sadness of the situation was clearly visible as Boychuk discussed the previous few months and how an eye injury he suffered in March had led to the end of his playing days.

Johnny Boychuk looked back fondly at the past six years that he spent with the Islanders, where he appeared in 404 games and recorded 35 goals and 95 assists. He recalled how he spent a majority of that time partnered with Nick Leddy, who was acquired within hours of Boychuk back on Oct. 4, 2014.

And the 36-year-old defenseman discussed how his greatest memory of being an Islander was the people he came across.

“Meeting the people on the Island,” Boychuk started to say before pausing to regain his composure. “From the arena attendants to the security guards to the media. The players, the coaches, the staff. I mean the management, the owners. Meeting all these great people. There have been so many good memories. … It’s tough to process everything at one time.”

What became abundantly clear in the hours after Boychuk announced the end of his career was the place he holds in Islanders fans’ hearts.

Yes, Johnny Boychuk won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins and spent six years in Beantown, but some of his most significant contributions came during his time on Long Island. And the biggest was the faith he showed when re-signing with the Islanders in 2015.

The signing went well beyond just making the Islanders a better team, it helped start to chip away at the perception that Long Island wasn’t a place top-tier talent wanted to stay. What Boychuk, and subsequently Leddy, gave the Islanders was a sense of credibility back that they had been lacking for some time.

“I’d seen it before where guys would come to the Island and they would leave within a year or two,” Boychuk said on Wednesday. “When I got traded to the Island we had a good group of young players, but now they’re veteran players. They’ve got experience and I think a lot of guys see potential in the Islanders. It’s a good place to play, to be with your family and to have a bond together as a team. It will continue to just get better and better.

“I think the fans realized it. I didn’t realize it at the time when I first got traded, but after being there a year I realized what it was to be an Islander and you take pride in it.”

Boychuk made an indelible mark on the Islanders organization through leadership on and off the ice. He won over fans through his gritty style of play and give it all attitude. Boychuk left it all on the ice with every shift.

He nearly brought the roof down in 2015 during a desperation clear in the closing seconds of the second period of Game 3 of the Islanders First Round series against Washington. And there were plenty more moments like that throughout his time on Long Island.

Boychuk may have never won a Stanley Cup with the Islanders, but he helped change the culture and perception of an organization that needed it. While he may not be retiring on the terms he would have liked, Boychuk can take some solace in knowing the franchise is in a much better place now than it was when he arrived.

“I think everybody has seen the transformation of how the team did that to themselves,” Boychuk said. “With Lou (Lamoriello) and Barry (Trotz) coming in halfway through my time on the Island it’s just been getting better and better as well. It will continue to get better and better because we play together and we play for each other, and we always will.”

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New York Islanders

Johnny Boychuk’s Career Ends Due to Eye Injury

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Johnny Boychuk

The NHL career of Johnny Boychuk came to an end on Wednesday after 13 seasons.

The New York Islanders announced that Boychuk’s time in the NHL had come to an end due to an eye injury he suffered during the regular season. Boychuk was clipped by the skate of the Montreal Canadiens’ Artturi Lehkonen on March 3 just above his eyelid.

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The gruesome injury required 90 stitches to repair the cut, but it did not preclude Johnny Boychuk from playing briefly during the postseason this year. While Boychuk did appear in three games during the playoffs over the summer, he did begin to feel the injury start to become an issue again.

“I kind of felt it in the bubble a little bit, but when I got out I started to work out and I really realized there was something wrong,” Boychuk said during a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon. “I went and got it checked out and after I got it checked out I let Lou know what was going on. It’s been two months of doctors and MRIs and X-Rays. It’s been a while.”

After months of tests and exams, the results Boychuk got back were eye-opening, he said during the call. Doctors told the veteran defenseman that his prereferral vision was “pretty bad” and that there was some optic nerve damage.

Doctors even went as far as to tell Boychuk that some of the damage to his eye was irreversible. The news was serious enough that it took any decision Boychuk was going to have right out of his hands.

“When somebody tells you you’re not going to play again or you shouldn’t or else you’re going to get seriously hurt it’s been really tough,” he said. “I don’t even think it was a decision. When you play with it and realize there’s something wrong and then you go and get tests. It wasn’t really a decision, it was a life choice.

“If I was to go play again and not being able to see somebody coming and getting hit, I could be a lot worse than what I was.”

While Boychuk’s career is coming to an end, the 36-year-old wasn’t quite sure if he was officially retiring or if he was being placed on LTIR. Boychuk had two years remaining on his contract and the Islanders would be able to use his $6 million cap hit if they put him on LTIR.

The Islanders have a mere $3.9 million in cap space with restricted free agent Mathew Barzal still unsigned.

“The injury is causing me to stop playing, so I don’t know if it’s retiring or LTIR,” Boychuk said. “I just know that it’s going to cause me to not play because it’s basically not safe for me if I can’t see things coming. For the future, I have no idea what to do because this has just been two months of going to doctors and I’m trying to think about what I can do after, but I’m not too sure yet.

“I want to be on the Island obviously. We built a house there, so there was no plans on leaving, but I just don’t know.”

Johnny Boychuk has spent the last six seasons with the Islanders, appearing in 404 games and recording 131 points (35 goals, 96 assists). He was acquired by the Islanders on Oct. 4, 2014, from the Boston Bruins in exchange for a pair of second-round picks.

Boychuk signed a seven-year contract extension later that season.

Prior to his trade to New York, Johnny Boychuk spent six years with Boston where he appeared in 317 games and won a Stanley Cup in 2011. In addition, Boychuk spent one season with the Colorado Avalanche.

Welcome to your new home for New York Islanders breaking news, analysis and opinion. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and don't forget to subscribe to NYHN+ for all of our members-only content from Christian Arnold and the National Hockey Now network.
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