EDMONTON — Barry Trotz stopped putting his New York Islanders through practice weeks ago.
They’re a team that needs to “red line” in order to have any sort of success, according to the veteran head coach, and that requires the time spent inside the NHL bubble not playing to be devoted solely to rest and recovery.
The Islanders are 369 days into this season and still fighting. It says something about the soul of this group that they found a way to extend the Eastern Conference Final to a sixth game. And they’re not shying away from the fact that there’s considerable duress to be found in trying to climb out from the hole the Tampa Bay Lightning have put them in.
“We have one life left, they have two. So you tell me which has more pressure,” Trotz said Wednesday.
At least they’ve got experience with the hard way. They had to come through Florida, Washington and Philadelphia just to reach the NHL’s Final Three. They did so by accumulating welts, bruises and injuries to be named later.
No one better embodies that spirit than Johnny Boychuk, who dressed Tuesday for the first time since getting injured in their Aug. 1 playoff opener.
Boychuk is 36 and nearing the end of a career that’s already earned him a Stanley Cup ring and nearly $50-million. And there he was with the Islanders season on the line, jumping in front of a 106-mile per hour blast from Nikita Kucherov.
“I know he’s feeling it today,” said teammate Devon Toews.
These Islanders are a reminder that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. They aren’t a group that puts themselves on the highlight reel as much as some of the teams that left the bubble weeks ago, but they have a plan and they stick to it.
It’s an approach that requires mental toughness and discipline.
They’ve created a brotherhood that’s recognizable from safe social distance inside Rogers Place. You saw it when multiple teammates went directly to Anthony Beauvillier as he exited the penalty box at the end of regulation on Tuesday after taking a four-minute high-sticking penalty.
That required the Islanders to play 4-on-5 for the first 2:37 of overtime with their season hanging in the balance — Trotz said he blacked out on the bench when the double-minor was assessed — and yet important members of the group still had the forethought to pick up Beauvillier.
They killed the penalty and eventually won the game on Jordan Eberle’s double-overtime strike. They lived to fight another day despite blocking more shots (32) than they managed to put on goal (24).
“That was a big win. A gritty win,” said captain Anders Lee. “Up and down our lineup, from [goaltender Semyon Varlamov] on out, we had everyone going and everyone was pivotal in us winning that game.
“I think when you have a win like that I think it’s definitely easier to carry over.”
They remain underdogs to the Lightning with Game 6 looming Thursday, but their belief in themselves hasn’t wavered.
Even after losing the series opener 8-2 on tired legs after a quick turnaround. Or when they had a defensive meltdown that allowed Kucherov to win Game 2 with just 8.8 seconds left in regulation.
New York has continued to push and get on the forecheck and finish every available bodycheck. It’s a difficult way to play, especially more than seven weeks into this gruelling playoff tournament.
“What you find out as you go along in the playoffs, the game is about all of those commitment elements and less about the artistic part of the game,” said Trotz. “That sort of gets thrown out a little bit just because so many battles happen, there’s no space. There’s no time.
“You’ve got to manage the puck, you’ve got to will yourself, you’ve got to jump on and execute on a moment. A missed play, whatever, that’s how you win in the playoffs.”
They’ve travelled the long road to get here. It included a training camp that opened Sept. 12, 2019, a winless road trip through Nashville, Vegas, Arizona and Colorado in February and seven straight losses before the COVID-19 pause came into effect in March.
Heck, the Islanders dropped three overtime games to the Flyers last round and still found a way to take the series.
They were resting their bodies and minds on Wednesday because there’s at least one more game to play.