PITTSBURGH — Just a ho-hum Sunday afternoon, the Islanders strolling around the visiting locker room, having postgame snacks, chatting about the Masters. No celebration, no blaring music, no big grins — nothing that would indicate they are the verge of sweeping the Penguins.
This is the way these Islanders have done business all season under Lou Lamoriello, so there was not even a shadow of pomp and circumstance surrounding their 4-1 win in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series that put them up in the best-of-seven contest, 3-0. Maybe they won’t win Game 4 here Tuesday night, but the odds of them losing the series are now minuscule — small only because Pittsburgh looks like a defeated team. Or, more appropriately, the Islanders have sucked all the life out of Sidney Crosby & Co.
Now, it’s time to stop waiting for the other shoe to fall. Now, it’s time to stop treating the Islanders like a surprise and start treating them like what they are — a terrific team.
“We got 103 points in the standings,” said goalie Robin Lehner, who has been at the forefront of this franchise turnaround with his own remarkable personal turnaround. “It can’t be a surprise. This team was no fluke this year. Everyone looks and compares players and all that stuff. I look at our roster and see a lot of really good players. I see a really good organization and great coaching.”
The organizational turnaround has been far more dramatic than the breathtaking Game 1 win, or the buttoned-up Game 2 victory, turning back the clock inside the Coliseum. Now the Islanders might be done at that wonderful and antiquated building on Hempstead Turnpike, with home games for the second round and beyond set for Barclays Center.
Switching homes seemed like such a footnote early on, because there were few who gave the Islanders the edge against the Penguins, myself included. But the Islanders don’t care about what other people think. They’ve been living in this bubble, built by Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz so that they only focus on what they can control.
What they have controlled in this series is just about everything. Most impressively, that has included their emotions. Josh Bailey scored the overtime winner in Game 1 after what could have been heartbreak from him hitting the post in the closing seconds of regulation. Throughout Game 2, they hit the Penguins from every angle and at every turn, but they never crossed the line of being undisciplined.
Then they hardly flinched when the Penguins scored first at home on Sunday, which was rather tepid compared to years past — an absolute library compared to the Coliseum. The Isles needed just 90 seconds to score twice and take a lead they wouldn’t surrender. Things happen, emotions run high, and the Islanders just go about their business.
“There is no expectation. So the prediction, looking ahead, we find that to be counterintuitive and counterproductive,” said alternate captain Cal Clutterbuck. “We’re just trying to take a day, a shift, a game at a time. That’s really it. There is no looking ahead.”
That attitude is such a testament to the environment — the “culture,” to use the overused sports vocabulary — that has been established by Lamoriello. The idea that everyone has to have a neat haircut and be clean-shaven (during the regular season, at least) is not about the aesthetic, but about discipline. For a franchise that was run like a buddies club with a rich uncle occasionally pulling the purse strings for 12 years, there is now rampant professionalism.
Off the ice, that is handed down by Lamoriello. On the ice, that is dictated by Trotz, who is reinforcing to everyone around the league why he should be the one with his name on the Jack Adams trophy in June. Who could imagine that these Islanders, essentially the same personnel that was the worst defensive team in the league last season, would totally shut down Crosby in the first three games? The people of this venerable blue-collar town are going to start looking on milk cartons for their beloved No. 87.
But you think the Islanders are patting themselves on the back for that? At this point, the answer should be obvious. Just like it’s become obvious that they’re the better team in this series.
“I see a lot of heart,” Lehner said, “so it shouldn’t be a surprise.”
No, it’s not a surprise. Not anymore.
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