UNIONDALE, New York — The newly-crowned New York Saints went marching into the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a touchdown in a convincing 6-2 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday at the Nassau Coliseum. The old barn on Long Island lives to see yet another round of play with the Islanders capturing the East Division title and moving on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While Boston coach Bruce Cassidy had a point when he complained about the officiating in Game 5, his argument that the Islanders were getting preferential big-city treatment carried little weight and only fueled the fans at the Coliseum.
For the second straight season, the Islanders have advanced to the semifinal round. When you consider who is in charge of the organization, it's not completely unthinkable. Lou Lamoriello is a Hall of Fame executive and Barry Trotz coached the Washington Capitals to a Stanley Cup three years ago.
But few predicted this after the events that unfolded in the summer of 2018 when center John Tavares, the Isles' franchise player and one of the most talented centers in the league, left for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.
Shortly after Lamoriello joined the organization and hired Trotz, the club's best player left the organization that drafted him for the big-money, high-profile organization that was built to compete for Stanley Cups year after year. Former general manager Garth Snow could have traded him at the deadline and received assets to build around, but the Islanders were left nothing. They were a laughingstock.
Some fans promptly burned their jerseys. But some didn't really blame Tavares for leaving. The Islanders had won only five playoff series in 34 years before 2018. The future of the Islanders was unclear, but Tavares was swayed by the prospect of bringing home a Stanley Cup to his hometown team. And an $11 million annual salary helped too.
But the prospects of the two organizations have turned. The Maple Leafs are cap-crunched and suffered yet another early-round exit. The Islanders, on the other hand, have gone on to win five official playoff rounds and one qualifying round in last year's bubble tournament in the last two seasons. It's a remarkable reversal of fortunes for a franchise that was otherwise forgotten after its dynasty days of the 1980s.
How did they get here?
Co-owner Jon Ledecky was asked Wednesday about the success of the team in recent seasons. He cited Lamoriello, Trotz and getting out of the way.
"We're not talking to Barry and Lou about who you're going to play on the fourth line," he told Brian Compton of NHL.com.
Lamoriello's lifelong philosophy of playing for the name on the front of the jersey rather than the one on the back is a perfect fit for a system coach like Trotz. A Trotz team in the regular season might be good, but they surprise you in the postseason every time.
It's a rope-a-dope seven-game series, with opponents wearing themselves out in the end. The Islanders stay disciplined, play physical without crossing the line and let their firepower take over when the other team has nothing left.
They fall back into their system and their structures when things go wrong. They respect Trotz's ability to communicate.
"He's won the Cup, he's had some runs," forward Anthony Beauvillier said. "The way he talks, the way he motivates the group, the way he has prepared the coaching staff goes a long way. And not just in the postseason, but in the regular season too getting us ready for the postseason. He's done a tremendous job with us since he's got here and he's given us a chance to play in the postseason year after year."
To execute in any system you need the right personnel. Lamoriello, the former general manager of the New Jersey Devils and team president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been chided for going after players he had on previous teams, but it's paid off. Forwards Leo Komarov and Matt Martin played for his Toronto teams, while the Islanders now boast four former New Jersey Devils in defenseman Andy Greene, forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac and taxi squad goalie Cory Schneider.
Palmieri and Zajac came to the Islanders in a blockbuster deadline-week move in April and helped drive the Isles in their Game 6 victory Wednesday. Zajac fooled Tuukka Rask on a rebound to give the Islanders that critical first goal 8:52 into play, and Palmieri scored his seventh of the postseason in the second period.
"You want to come and try to contribute any way possible and we were coming to a team that made a deep run last year and showed why they were in the playoffs this year," Zajac said. "It's a great group, and it's fun to be a part of."
Lamoriello made other key personnel moves as well, like bringing in goalie Semyon Varlamov, who backstopped the Islanders to their Game 6 victory, and center Jean-Gabriel Pageau in a trade-and-sign last season. Pageau has produced at more than a point-per-game rate through the playoffs (12 games, 13 points).
It's almost hard to believe that an organization marred by so much chaos and dysfunction throughout the 1990s and early 2000s could be a model of success right now.
Who could forget the John Spano disaster in 1996? In more recent history, the club was nearly homeless when the move to Barclay's Center in Brooklyn didn't work out. They fired longtime head coach Jack Capuano and replaced him with assistant general manager Doug Weight in January of 2017.
They let the face of the franchise walk away.
Now, they have a brand new arena on track to be ready by the time the puck drops on next season. Instead of a star player, they have a star coach who can get everyone to play like stars when it matters most. Overseeing it all is a general manager who keeps the engine going with the right personnel moves.
Between the nickname, the nostalgic arena and the recent success, the Islanders are having a moment. Maybe it would have happened with or without Tavares, but regardless, it's clear they don't need him now.