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.
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.
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.
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.