There are numerous examples of teams that needed to go through some growing pains and playoff disappointments before they were able to break through and win a championship. From an Islanders perspective, all you have to do is look at the years leading up to the Stanley Cup dynasty era as the Isles suffered some painful defeats before finally hoisting the Stanley Cup. It didn’t take the Islanders very long from being an expansion team in 1972 to enjoying some playoff success in 1975, but then the proof was in the pudding as to how hard it is to win it all.
In 1975, 1976 and 1977, they lost in the semifinals. Then, in 1978, the Islanders lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the quarterfinals when Lanny McDonald scored in overtime of game seven at Nassau Coliseum. The following year, the Islanders were the regular season NHL champions and met the Rangers in the 1979 semifinals only to lose to the Blueshirts in six games.
The Islanders then turned those painful defeats into lessons learned and four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983.
And now, as the Islanders get ready to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the franchise and their fans that history can repeat itself. Lou Lamoriello was named Islanders President late in the 2017-18 season, ultimately took over as General Manager, and hired Barry Trotz as Head Coach who had just led the Washington Capitals to a Stanley Cup.
In 2019, the Islanders swept the Penguins in the first round and then were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in round two. Last season in the bubble, the Islanders advanced to the Eastern Conference Final but lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games with their game six loss coming in overtime.
And now, as the song that is played after wins at Nassau Coliseum goes, the Islanders will get “Right Back Where We Started From” and look to take care of some unfinished business by relying on past experience.
“It’s positive reinforcement because playoff hockey ends up being a grind,” said Trotz. “Having a little success definitely reinforces it and gives you the confidence that you know you can do it and gives you the confidence that you know it works. Every year is a different challenge.”
Last season, the Islanders knocked on the door in their quest for the fifth Stanley Cup in team history but fell just a bit short. The group that begins this season’s playoff journey has many of the same players that enjoyed playoff success over the last two postseasons. The Islanders won’t have injured Captain Anders Lee, but rookie Oliver Wahlstrom has become a key player and at the deadline they added veteran forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac along with veteran defenseman Braydon Coburn who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay last season.
Can the Islanders take the lessons learned from the last two seasons and take the next step?
“A lot of teams who end up winning a Stanley Cup go through experiences that will benefit them moving forward,” said Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck. “You don’t always climb the mountain the first time and you gotta learn your lessons and we’ve been learning our lessons. Hopefully this year, the experience comes in and we can use those experiences in situations during this run hopefully they benefit us.”
The Islanders are spending the week leading up to the start of the playoffs take care of two pieces of business. They’re preparing for the Penguins, a team they played eight times during the regular season but only beat twice. But over their three seasons under Trotz, the Islanders have spent more time focusing on their game and their identity so a lot of the Islanders’ preparation this week will be focusing on their game and what they need to do regardless of the opposition.
“It’s about what we do,” said Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech. “We’ll prepare for tendencies and stuff against the teams we’re facing but at the end of the day, it’s about what we do and we know that if we play our game and do what makes us so successful, then we have a good chance against anyone.”
Winning a championship is not easy.
The Islanders learned that in the years before they finally won a Stanley Cup.
Barry Trotz coached some good teams in Nashville and then suffered some playoff failures his first three years in Washington before the Capitals finally won a Stanley Cup.
And look at other sports teams in New York/New Jersey who went through the same thing.
The Giants suffered playoff losses following the 1984 and 1985 but the following season broke through and won the Super Bowl. The 1995 Yankees who lost a tough five-game Division Series to the Seattle Mariners before winning the World Series in 1996 and again from 1998 to 2000. The Mets fell just short of winning their division in 1984 and 1985 before winning the World Series in 1986. The Devils experienced a painfully seven-game loss to the Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference Final and then won the Stanley Cup in 1995.
Time will tell if the 2021 Islanders will use their playoff experience and turn it into a Stanley Cup or if this season will wind up being another lesson learned.