By Lenn Robbins
This isn’t exactly what the folks in marketing are looking for when trying to sell a team, especially one moving into a new arena, especially when the other two teams in its market are making tee times.
“When we step on the ice, everybody knows what they’re doing,” Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov said. “We believe in that structure and we believe in our coaching staff.”
Yep, doesn’t grab headlines. But the style of play that Barry Trotz has the Islanders playing wins games, especially playoff games. The defense-first system can slowly but surely wear down a team. Which is what happened in Game 1 of their second-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Flyers.
They took a 1-0 lead by dominating the first period, rebounded from a poor second period, and snuffed the life out of the Flyers in a 4-0 win. Varlamov, posting his second straight shutout, made 29 saves, including some terrific ones in the second period.
It matters not that the Islanders finished the regular season having lost 11 of their last 13, including seven straight, or that the Flyers went won nine straight before losing their final game. The Islanders went in the game with the best goals-against average (1.67) of any team. The Flyers (1.78) making which is a pretty clear indication of how this series will go.
The Islanders are not a roster full of star power although Matthew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier might change that. They are the sum of their parts – a disciplined, structured team that owns the neutral zone and the defensive space between the circles.
“Obviously we’re a very structured team,” veteran defenseman Andy Greene told reporters. “We rely on that and that’s our bread and butter. We have a game plan and we try to stick to it the best we can, and then we go from there.
“One guy makes a mistake, the other guy’s there to back you up, pick you up and go from there. Overall, it’s just our team structure and identity is very solid. Going into the next series, it’s even got to be better and go from there.”
Greene is one of the beneficiaries of this system. He was inserted into the lineup when Johnny Boychuk was injured. Boychuk is healthy again but Greene remains in the lineup.
He scored the game’s first goal at 6:06 of the first. Beauvillier and Josh Bailey won the forecheck and got the puck to Greene at the right point. He passed it to Brock Nelson and slid to the left point. Nelson fed it cross ice and Greene unleashed a one-timer. that Philly goalie Carter Hart, screened by his own defenseman Phillipe Meyers and Beauvillier, never saw.
The tone was set for the first period. The Islanders outshot the Flyers 15-4 including a streak of 10 straight shots.
But whatever Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said to his team in between the first and second periods worked. The Flyers outshot the Islanders 15-7 in the second. If not for several outstanding saves by Varlamov it should have been a tie game entering the third.
And then the Islanders generated a decisive goal by putting their system to work. They won on the forecheck and Leo Komarov found Jean-Gabriel Pageau alone in the slot He cleanly beat Hart at 2:54.
As the Flyers began to press, the Islanders went for the kill. In these situations, they can be a quick-strike team. They used a 3-on-2 rush to make it 3-0 on one of the prettiest playoff goals you’ll see. Jordan Eberle, coming up the right side, feathered a pass to Barzal who slipped what looked like a no-look pass to Anders Lee, who chipped it past Hart at 8:50.
The Islanders, the No.6 seed in the East, had strangled the top-seeded Flyers, 4-0. Game 2 is Wednesday at 3 p.m.; giving the Flyers less than 48 hours to figure out how to beat the Islanders system.
“I think we just trust it,” Trotz said. “We know what works for us. I think we understand how you win in the playoffs. We’ve basically gotten through two rounds right now, from a mental and physical standpoint. It’s sort of ingrained in your DNA of what you need to do and how you have to play.”