The last time the New York Islanders were this close to the NHL’s version of the final four, their two leading goal scorers in the Eastern Conference semifinals — Anders Lee and Jean-Gabriel Pageau — were two years old and six months old, respectively.
Head coach Barry Trotz was 30 years old and coaching in the American Hockey League.
But don’t expect Trotz and his players to focus too much on just how long it’s been since the Islanders have been in the position they’ll be in Tuesday night.
The Islanders will look to reach the conference finals for the first time since 1993 when they face the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 5 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series in Toronto.
The Islanders took a 3-1 lead in the series during Game 4 Sunday night, when Pageau scored the tie-breaking goal in the third period of a 3-2 win.
With one more victory, the sixth-seeded Islanders will continue the NHL’s summer Cinderella story and end the league’s longest conference finals drought. New York advanced to — as it was known then –the Wales Conference finals in 1993 by knocking off the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semifinals before upsetting the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-game Patrick Division finals series.
The only other team that hasn’t been to the conference finals since 1993 is the Columbus Blue Jackets, who didn’t begin play until 2000.
But the Islanders, who were a point out of the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference when the regular season ended due to the pandemic on March 11, aren’t getting wrapped up in the history they can create Tuesday — especially after winning Sunday despite playing what Trotz called their worst game of the playoffs.
“Let’s look at the task at hand,” Trotz said Sunday night. “The task at hand is we’ve got to win one more game. And that last game’s the toughest. We’re going to have to go earn it. No one’s going to walk out of the room and give us a game.
“We’ve got to go earn it. And today, we didn’t play well enough to earn it. We were able to get a win and that says a lot about this group.”
Teams trailing 3-1 are 29-284 (9.3 percent) in winning a best-of-7 Stanley Cup Playoff series, including 0-6 in the first round this season.
Despite falling into a hole which has been historically difficult to climb out of, the top-seeded Flyers are hopeful they generated some momentum in Sunday’s loss.
In the first round this season, teams that were down 3-1 in a series were 0-6 in series wins. But that can’t matter to Philadelphia, which had the last 12 shots of the second period, outshot the Islanders 17-3 in the period and 38-33 overall.
“It’s tough,” Flyers goalie Brian Elliott said Sunday night. “You want to get a win, especially in this pivotal game here. But we’re down, but we’re not out and I think the guys realize that.
“I think if we play our consistent game, we’ll give ourselves a good chance.”
And Flyers coach Alain Vigneault has engineered such comebacks before. He guided the New York Rangers back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Penguins in the 2014 second round. His Rangers did it again in 2015, when a 3-1 deficit didn’t stop New York from beating the Washington Capitals (coached by Trotz) in the second round.
“The beauty of the playoffs is it can flip quick, and I think we’re close to busting through,” Philadelphia defenseman Matt Niskanen said Monday. “I believe in our group that we can do that. We’ve got to have something go right for us here in Game 5 and we can start flipping the series.”
–Field Level Media