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Fear and Loathing in the Playoffs: Islanders email therapy returns for Panthers series

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Are we...having fun?

Get in there, big man.
Get in there, big man.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Last season, Mike and I collaborated on an email exchange prior to the Islanders' playoff series with Washington. That article lead directly to the establishment of our Islanders Anxiety podcast. This year, we decided to talk after Game 3 of the Islanders series with the Panthers, and the topics included Reilly Smith, Barclays Center and taking the team for granted.

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From: Michael Leboff
To: Dan Saraceni

Christ on an odd-man rush, three games in four nights to kick off a playoff series has me feeling like I swallowed a whole bunch of thumbtacks that just came out of the oven. Like Roberto Luongo, I need this rest before Game 4.

Before this 72-hour bloodbath began I would have traded an organ to be up 2-1 and I couldn't be prouder of this group right now. This whole season has been so odd and now all of a sudden I feel as if I've taken this group for granted and to see them celebrate the way did after Thomas F***ing Hickey's winner, man I felt something get woke in the depths of my being.

I don't really know where to start - so I'll start with Alan Quine and Shane Prince. I think putting Ryan Strome on a line with two guys who need to dig deep on every shift to be successful was a stroke of genius from Capuano and it has Strome playing well. They have my full, undivided attention every time they step on the ice. I'm falling deeply in love with this trio. Obviously I don't need to say much about the "Letter Line" - Okposo-Tavares-Nielsen, but damn is it cool to see the three of them play together in what will most likely be there last go-round as teammates. My heart is exploding with love for them and to see them get separated will be so hard for me.

I also find myself getting verklempt seeing Hamonic out there. If it was possible to make a moving image into a poster, I would want the GIF of Hamonic swatting the rat after the Game 1 win. He embodies what everybody loves about the sport and he's grown into one of the most important people in my life. And Jesus Greiss, Our Lord and Saver, is doing what the Islanders need him to do. He isn't there to stop 39 shots a game and shut out a high-flying offense. He's there to make timely saves and keep the Islanders in the game. He deserves so much credit. I'd love to send him a fruit basket or a gift certificate to his or his wife's favorite restaurant.

Feeling this good at this juncture is scaring the hell out of me. I keep trying to remind myself that like the regular season, a playoff series is not a sprint. It's a war of attrition and can turn on a moment's notice (i.e. Matt Bertani's Video Review Heard 'Round the World). The Panthers top-six are as good as advertised and have looked awfully close to blowing open each game. These guys are haunting my every waking moment and Reilly Smith is so far inside my head that I am almost embarrassed at how afraid I get when he is near the puck. Seriously, I've been kept up seeing his stupid number 18 jersey hovering above me while I try to get what little sleep is possible during the playoffs. He's spitting on the remaining shreds of mental sanity that I have. I swear to Bossy that Sasha Barkov gets bigger every shift. What a scary thing he is.

This series is so far from over and I can't help but think about last year against the Capitals. Win Game 1, lose Game 2, win Game 3 in overtime in front of a raucous crowd only to be let down. Its great to enjoy the high tonight, but Wednesday is no less a must-win than last night. We are in control but this team hasn't been the type to step on a throat when given the chance. That needs to change. You know that feeling you get when you try very hard to comprehend something that's incomprehensible? Like when you try to wrap your head around eternity or the fact that the universe is always expanding - that's how I feel about going up more than a game in a playoff series. I just can't fathom it.

That's where I am at right now. Terrified of how good I am feeling. Man 3-1 would be nice.

-Michael

P.S. - I am going to mail some fermented fish to the loved ones of the next analyst to say that Jagr hasn't scored a playoff goal in almost half-a-season of games when he has the puck in the offensive zone.

From: Dan Saraceni
To: Michael Leboff

I spent my entire Sunday in the throes of some kind of mutant sinus infection/head cold hybrid, but I felt pretty good around 11:20 pm when Thomas Hickey called for a pass and didn't miss. I get where you're coming from when you talk about taking the team for granted. I recently started wondering if, whether it's here at the blog, on the podcast or just in conversation, we've been too harsh on these guys. They don't always play the way we want them to, but they had 100-point season and now have two playoff wins. None of that happened by accident.

The Hickey goal and the win need context to be fully appreciated. When Barkov made it 2-0, the Islanders looked lost. When Ekblad scored to make it 3-0, I already started looking towards Wednesday. Then the overturning review, then Pulock's goal. Even after Bjugstad (or "Boogstagg" as Butch Goring keeps calling him) scored, the Islanders came right back with two goals before the end of the period. The third was played safe by both teams, and they exchanged pressure in OT before Hickey lit Barclays Center on fire.

As I talked about the last time we did a playoff email conversation, seeing that kind of effort and knowing they left everything out on the ice is right now the most important thing for me. I was okay with the Game 2 loss because the effort was there, but Luongo did this thing and preserved the split. It happens. I'll look for that same effort on Wednesday. I expect the Panthers to bring theirs, too.

What's stuck out to me most about how Florida plays is that they keep getting and finding guys in open space, something the Islanders don't generally do that often. Every Panthers goal seems to be scored by a late trailer or a guy who found some "soft ice" while everyone else was looking the other way. They clearly have a defined offensive gameplan and execute it well, in addition to using their size and speed. If this is the "first step" for the franchise, they're gonna be scary good up front for a long time.

I'd like to see the Islanders make plays like that, rather than just throwing pucks at Luongo. You saw it on Prince's goal and Hickey's goal (and to a certain extent Nielsen's goal): find a little separation and get a quick shot off. Because if there's a Panther near you, that puck is going to get gobbled up.

The other thing I was proud to see was how electric Barclays was for the game, which was a (if not the only) storyline the Islanders had going into the game. It seemed to shut up a lot of naysayers. At least, for a little while.

-Dan

From: Michael Leboff
To: Dan Saraceni

Admittedly I got a little nervous about the Barclays when they began to unveil their promotional plan for Game 3. Calling the fan-fest (good idea) "A total brand takeover" (bad idea) is the the exact type of tone-deaf corporate-speak that makes Islander fans get on Yormark.

Hockey fans aren't going to a playoff game to try new food items. They're going to sit and watch on the edge of their seat in hopes that their team wins and they can celebrate like they did on Sunday night. Hopefully the powers that be saw that if they just sit back and let the magic of this sport do the work for them, things will be okay and the Barclays will become home. It sounded like home last night. Yormark's been banging the "need to develop new fans" drum all season long, but how many people watched last night and said "Holy f**k, that looked like the best time." Games and experiences like that will bring in new fans. You could feel the atmosphere through the broadcast and it felt like the place could fall down any second. It was beautiful.

Scoring first, or not allowing a goal in the first few minutes of a game would be nice. I think the defense, as a unit, has been pretty good. They're a bit outmatched at the moment but they're showing a great 'bend-don't-break' mentality. Also, the power play looks like a real threat when Ryan Pulock is out there. Having a weapon like him on the blueline causes the Panthers to complete warp their gameplan and shift towards his side and open up space. His goal was an absolute laser.

As concerned as I was about the 12-29-86 line after Games 1 and 2, I hope they spent all day and night watching tape from how they played in the last 30 minutes of Game 3. As down as Kulemin's been this year, he's still a really tough player to play against when he's doing his work. The three of them, Kulemin's relentlessness, Bailey's decent vision and Nelson's finishing should make for a good blend - let's hope that comes out.

Now it's onto Game 4. They've already let one chance (although they played perhaps their best game in Game 2) to get a hold on the series slip away and we saw last year how letting a team off the hook will haunt you. This team talks about "next steps" in every postgame scrum from here to Timbuktu - this is the next step. Go up 3-1 and then let's see how the Panthers can handle their backs being pressed against the proverbial wall.

From: Dan Saraceni
To: Michael Leboff

"Total brand takeover" is what Yormark probably has tattooed on his chest like that "No Ragrets" guy. But you hit on exactly what's kinda been the disconnect between the Barclays folks and Islanders fans all season. Hockey fans don't want bells and whistles, they just want killer games that make you want to see the next one. Don't get me wrong: the bells and whistles (and food) are nice, but no one's coming out just for that. Chances are, people that watched that game and saw the bedlam and passion will watch another and another. The Islanders are never going to be a marquee, big city franchise for the NHL, but games like that elevate the game experience beyond a curiosity and will help get people in the building more often.

The Islanders power play is fun to watch again, with Pulock bombing away, but their reluctance to use Johnny Boychuk on either unit is weird. Does he not want to overwork his shoulder that was injured earlier this season in Buffalo? Is he hurt now? I've read that the coaches want to keep him fresh for PK work, but they don't call him "Johnny Rocket" for nothing. Unless the brass is afraid he's going to break more Islanders teammate legs.

As long as that Bailey-Kulemin-Nelson line can cycle and keep the puck in Florida's zone, they'll be useful. Maybe more games together will increase their intuition with one another. The fact is, they're stuck together because Capuano won't want to mess with the three lines that are working. Next stop for the guys who can't keep up is the press box.

The Islanders seem to be allowed only one narrative per game. So now that one narrative changes from "Can Greiss carry the load?" to "What will Barclays Center's crowd be like?" to "Can the Islanders take a 3-1 lead?" This might be the hardest question to answer. Oh god.

From: Michael Leboff
To: Dan Saraceni

It's startling that I've been so wrapped up in the fact that I've never seen this team win a playoff series that I always gloss over the fact that they've not had a two-game lead in a series in my fan-existence, either.

One of the things that's scaring me the most is that we've all been dealt gut-shot after gut-shot for 20+ years that I can't help but have this "go ahead, try to break my heart. It was already dusted into smithereens." mentality that's calming me down. It's not good. I shouldn't feel this at peace 48 hours from the most important game of my life. It got so bad that I've started to force myself to conjure up images and scenarios of how this could end up more heart-breaking than all the other low-moments I've experienced and I can't think of one. I'm sick about it. Send help.

From: Dan Saraceni
To: Michael Leboff

Maybe, like Ryan Pulock, we should let the game come to us and not be afraid to take a risk and enjoy it. Yeah, it could go sideways, but that's just one possible scenario. You gotta trust your gut and leave it all out on the ice.