In any sport, there’s something about an elimination game that can bring out the best or even the worst in a team. For the most part, the Islanders played their style of hockey in games one and two of their Stanley Cup Qualifier against the Florida Panthers and they had a 2-0 series lead to show for it. But in game three on Wednesday, the Islanders made some undisciplined mistakes and took some bad penalties while the Panthers raised the level of their game and that all led to Florida staying alive with a 3-2 win.
Now up two games to one, the Islanders have another chance to punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals if they can beat the Panthers in game four on Friday afternoon in Toronto. A boxer could have his opponent on the ropes, but if he doesn’t land that one big punch, perhaps the momentum can swing the other way.
“The hardest game to win is the knockout game,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz. “Anytime that you have your back against the wall, you’re fighting and giving it your all and you have to have that even if you don’t have your backs against the wall. You have to have that killer instinct so hopefully we have that (on Friday). You know that Florida is going to have their best game so we’ve got to bring our best game.”
In a best of five series, each game, each period, and each shift is magnified. There isn’t a lot of room for error and the Islanders let a golden opportunity slip away on Wednesday. In game four, the Islanders need to get back to their game and make things uncomfortable for the Panthers, particularly early in the contest. A couple of days ago, the Islanders were in a position to sweep the series and if they falter again in game four, they would be facing a winner take all game five on Sunday.
There is certainly a unique feeling that comes with playing in an elimination game whether you’re one win away from advancing or one loss away from going home.
“Obviously if you’re one game from being eliminated, a lot of pressure is off you,” said Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy. “I think you go out and play. On the other end, it’s a lot harder. I just remember that through the years that those were the hardest games to really close a team out. They’re playing a little stress free.”
For the better part of the last two seasons, the Islanders have done a great job of dealing with adversity and having a next man up mentality if someone gets hurt. Defensemen Johnny Boychuck left game one with a head injury and was replaced for games two and three with veteran Andy Greene, the former Devils captain who was acquired during the regular season. The Islanders didn’t practice on Thursday but Trotz reported that Boychuck is doing better and that there could be a change or two for game four.
Regardless of who suits up, the Islanders have a team mentality and as forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau pointed out after the game one win, the Islanders are “a brotherhood”.
“The accountability factor,” said Brock Nelson. “We’ve had some guys that have been around the island for a while and (its) a pretty tight-knit group so we’ve had different struggles and challenges throughout the years that we’ve been able to overcome and everybody believes in one another and everybody believes in the depth of our group.”
The Islanders are well aware that finishing off the Panthers will not be easy. The three regular season games with Florida were close contests and the three games so far in this playoff series have been tight. But that’s what playoff hockey is all about and the Islanders are well aware of what it will take to put away the Panthers. Capitalizing on opportunities, staying away from costly mistakes, and knowing that Florida is going to throw everything they have at the Islanders to force a game five.
“You want to have that mentality that you have to have the acceptance that it’s going to be a hard game,” said Trotz. “You can’t look to play around this game. You have to play through this game. You have to accept it. When you look for the easy game on a closeout, you’re not going to get it. If you do, it’s rare and seldom but you just have to accept that it’s going to be an extremely hard game. If you’re unwilling to accept it, then you won’t have a chance to win.”
In the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, only one team has rallied from a two games to none deficit to win a best of five series and that was the 1985 Islanders who overcame an 0-2 hole against the Washington Capitals. The Islanders certainly don’t want to be on the other end of that kind of history so their task at hand is simple. Take care of business in game four because you can never tell what can happen in a game five They need to come out swinging on Friday and land that knockout blow.