By Lenn Robbins
The Islanders are four wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1984.
Let that settle in for a minute.
Once one of the NHL’s proudest franchises, the Islanders recently have been relegated to hockey vagabonds, shuttled from Uniondale to Brooklyn, where obstructed-view seating was taken to a criminal level, back to Uniondale and eventually Elmont.
The Islanders, one of just two franchises to have won four straight Stanley Cups (1980-83) are four more wins from playing for their first title in 37 years. They put themselves in this magnificent position by overwhelming the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-1, Saturday night in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference second-round series.
The 6th-seeded Islanders will face the 2nd-seed Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Islanders haven’t been here in 27 years. The Flyers were the No.1 seed. The Islanders previously eliminated the 3rd-seed Capitals.
“These moments don’t come around often,” said Islanders forward Matt Martin. “Game 7s are special and we got a chance to go to the conference final. Our goal is to win a Cup, so I’m really confident in the group that we have moving forward.”
The Islanders seemed to moving forward in a sprint. They had taken a 3-1 lead in the series before losing back-to-back overtime games to find themselves in the most emotionally taut games in sports – a Game 7.
“Game 7, it’s not a normal game,” said coach Barry Trotz. “A regular season game is normal. Game 7, they’re very special. There’s a heightened awareness, anticipation. You’re excited. You’ve got some nerves. You’ve got all those good things. Everybody’s all-in.”
After some unsteady play in the first five minutes, the Islanders shook any nerves and took control. Scott Mayfield scored his first goal of the playoffs at 9:27 of the first period and the Islanders never looked back. It was sweet redemption for Mayfield, who broke his stick in the second overtime of Thursday night’s Game 6, leading to the Flyer’s winning goal.
Andy Greene, the veteran defenseman who was exceptional in this season, score at 13:12 to give the Islanders a 2-0 first-period lead. They outshot the Flyers, 10-6, in the first period and got back to playing the style they showed throughout their remarkable run in Toronto.
By the end of two periods the Islanders had outshot the Flyers, 19-9, and had taken a 3-0 lead on Brock Nelson’s seventh goal of the playoffs set up a gorgeous pass from Josh Bailey, who has been a human assist machine.
Trotz set the tone by opting to start Thomas Greiss in goal in favor of Semyon Varlamov, who had started 14 of New York’s 15 games this postseason. Varlamov was not at his best in the 5-4 overtime loss Thursday night and Greiss had been sensational in his one playoff start, a 3-2 win in Game 4 in which he made 36 saves.
“You think it right through,” Trotz said regarding the decision. “Part of coaching is getting a feel for where guys are, where they are in terms of their game, in terms of their life, in terms of their energy, all that, is getting a feel for it.”
There was little reason for any Islanders fan to feel a run like this was possible. The Islanders lost their last seven games and 11-of-13 before the season was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. This is not the same Islanders team that finished the regular season. In fact, this just might be a team of destiny.
The Islanders streak of four straight Cup wins ended in 1984 when the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers to the first of four Cups over the next five years. The Canadiens are the only franchise to have won five straight Cups from 1956-60.
Anthony Beauvillier added an empty-net goal at 13:42.