The New York Islanders have finished strong twice in building a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals, but believe they can benefit from better starts.
The Islanders were the better team in the third period in each of the first two games and look to extend their series lead in Game 3 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Sunday (noon ET; USA, SN360, TVAS, MSG, MSG+, NBCSWA).
But New York made it a point Saturday to express the importance of being quicker out of the gate as opposed to chasing the game, which they were forced to do in Game 1 and again during their 5-2 victory in Game 2 on Friday after Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin scored 56 seconds after the opening face-off.
The Islanders trailed 2-0 in the second period of Game 1 before rallying in the third, capped by forward Josh Bailey‘s go-ahead shorthanded goal in a 4-2 win.
“I think we want to have some better starts,” captain Anders Lee said. “It’s not going to get easier here; they’re going to bring their best, even better than they have the first two games. It’s a tough task ahead. We have to continue to raise our level and expect more from ourselves and continue to build off what we’ve established here in this series.”
Teams with a 2-0 lead are 324-51 (86.4 percent) winning a best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff series. Those with a 3-0 lead are 190-4 (97.9 percent).
There isn’t an NHL opposing coach more familiar with Washington than New York coach Barry Trotz, who guided the Capitals to the Stanley Cup in 2018. He knows they’re not about to roll over now.
In the first step of that Cup run, Washington fell behind 2-0 in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets before winning that series in six games.
The rest is history.
“Our players are well aware of that journey,” Trotz said. “I’ve talked to many of them about ‘you have to stay-in-the-fight’ type of thing. We’ll brush on it, but I’m going to focus on us.”
The Islanders have been focused since they arrived in Toronto, the Eastern hub city. They are 5-1 in the postseason and have allowed 11 goals in six games, bolstered by the returns of forward Cal Clutterbuck, defenseman Adam Pelech and center Casey Cizikas, each injured during the regular season, along with their NHL Trade Deadline acquisitions of center Jean-Gabriel Pageau and defenseman Andy Greene. New York has allowed two goals or fewer in each victory this postseason.
These were the attributes the Islanders displayed in the first half of the regular season, highlighted by a team record 17-game point streak (15-0-2). They were 16-3-2 following a 2-1 overtime loss at the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 23, but between injuries and an inability to play to their strengths consistently, New York went 19-20-8 the rest of the way, and 0-3-4 in the last seven before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
Naturally, there were questions as to whether New York could regain its first-half form in the postseason.
“I think we’re really realizing what we need to do to be successful,” said defenseman Nick Leddy, who won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. “I think we haven’t had the best of starts, and we’ve talked about that in the locker room. I think each team is going to have their moments of pressure, and it’s being able to weather that and start taking the game over.
“I think the team is very confident, obviously, by our play. We’re confident in how we’re playing and each other, and that can lead for a long run in the playoffs. I think it’s kind of been built up over time, and it started when we got back and hammering out our details and structure and how we play as Islanders.”
Eager to grab a 3-0 series lead, they’ll look to play to their identity from the start, a style similar to how they finished Game 2, when they wouldn’t allow the Capitals to leave their end of the ice.
“I didn’t like our start yesterday,” Trotz said Saturday. “I haven’t liked our starts in this series. We’ve sort of been trailing and chasing the game a little bit, but our finishes have been really strong. You see when we understand how we have to play, especially with leads or in the third period.”
They’re halfway to reaching the second round for the second straight season. Now, the Islanders must focus on starting Game 3 on the right foot, with a desperate opponent staring them in the face.
“We’ve put a couple of pretty good games together, but we can’t sit back and rest on our laurels against this team,” Lee said. “It’s an experienced group over there that have been through a lot and overcome a lot clearly to have won it a couple of years ago. We’ve got to be really primed and ready to go for Game 3.”