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Islanders Back & Forth: Extra Gears, Gold Bricks and Trying to Be Water

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A weekly look at the Islanders’ most recent - and next few - games. Mostly.

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Tampa Bay Lightning v New York Islanders - Game Four Photo by Rich Graessle/Getty Images

Another rollercoaster ride, full of ups, downs, scares, relief and incredible, indelible moments. And that was just the last four seconds of Game 4.

First, let’s look back at the (getting pretty tense out there) week that was.

Last week for the New York Islanders:

Playoff Game 14: 4-2 loss to the Lightning

I would have been a lot more distraught about this loss if the Islanders hadn’t won Game 1. They didn’t play quite as well as they had in the previous games but that was to be expected since A. they were playing the Lightning (who hadn’t played that well in Game 1) at home and B. they had just won three enormously emotional games in a row. I was out of gas, too, and I hadn’t left my couch for all four games.

I didn’t like how scrummy the game was, and felt it ultimately hurt the Islanders even more than the turnovers did. Having a mutant like Pat Maroon running around trying to start shit is as irritating to watch as it must be to play against. The Islanders aren’t a team that backs down from physicality, but they seemed a little too eager to punch back rather than focusing on the game.

Playoff Game 15: 2-1 loss to the Lightning

By all the numbers, except for the most important one, the Islanders played an excellent game. They had more high danger chances, scoring chances and shots than the Lightning did. One great individual effort by Brayden Point and a bunch of saves by Andrei Vasilevskiy and blocks by Lightning defenders were the difference. The Lightning out-Islanders’d the Islanders and took home a tidy 2-1 win. Even Barry Trotz seemed pretty upbeat in his post-game comments.

None of that made the loss easier to swallow, which ultimately illustrated just how hard it is to win at this level. To get past the Penguins and Bruins, the Islanders had to dig deep. The get past the Lightning, they’ll need to find even more strata.

That’s not a very analytical way of looking at things but without that extra gear, the numbers won’t matter no matter how good they are under the hood.

Playoff Game 16: 3-2 win over the Lightning

You know who found an extra gear? Ryan Pulock, who made a block across the goal line that will be replayed for a long time. The Islanders played a heckuva game for 57 minutes, matching the Lightning in intensity and deserving a win. But it all came down to one play and it’s one Ryan McDonagh will be seeing in his sleep for a while.

Before that, like many of you, I was shitting a gold brick thinking about how the Lightning were going to win this game and erase all the good the Islanders had done in one quick swipe. It was similar to when they gave up three goals to the Bruins in the third period of Game 5 of the previous series, only magnified by an order of degrees. I was convinced it was over. It was just a matter of time.

Then a time out, about 10 tense minutes (of game time, which meant about a half hour of real time), one insane save by a defenseman later and it was over. Finally. It took me a while to calm down after that and even as I write this, I can still feel that tension.

Whenever I see a picture of Ryan Pulock making that block, crouched in the crease with his hand open and guiding the puck away from the inside of the net, I can still feel that tension. If they put up a statue of him doing it, I will again. It was that extraordinary.

Record for the week: 1-2

Playoff Record: 10-6

Next week for the New York Islanders:

Monday, June 21 at the Lightning, Wednesday, June 23 at the Islanders, Friday, June 25 at the Lightning

It’s impossible to predict what the next few games will look like. This series has been tighter than a lot of people expected. Even in Game 2, which the Lightning controlled for the most part, wasn’t exactly a domination. The Islanders came up a goal short in Game 3 and finished a goal ahead in Game 4 thanks to some incredible individual moments.

They are tied in the series and have earned it. I’m trying to stay in the moment, as Barry Trotz always says. But it’s difficult. We have to hope the Islanders have some more moments to rise to left in them.

Predicted record for the week: 2-1.

Canadian Sportswriters Say The Darnedest Things:

He’s back! You may remember Toronto Globe & Mail columnist Cathal Kelly from a few months ago, when we highlighted his opus on why Sidney Crosby needs to be traded to Montreal for the good of himself, the Penguins, Connor McDavid (yeah), the NHL and the sport of hockey in general. It was one of the dumbest articles I’ve ever read, and while this new offering isn’t quite as dead-ass stupid, it is par for the course for galaxy-brained Canadian sports columnists who love to spout off about teams they have also actively ignored for decades.

Entitled, “Islanders show the Leafs what might have been,” the column is an instant All Star in the recent genre of writing I like to call “Leafs’ Lou Laments.” The Islanders’ success over the last three seasons since the exits of John Tavares and Lou Lamoriello to and from Toronto has caused many a taking head to wonder if the Leafs made some mistakes in signing their captain away from the Islanders and letting their former GM take them over. Of course, A LOT more has gone into why the Islanders are where they are right now (and why the Leafs are where they are) than just one or two moves by one person. But Kelly and his colleagues won’t let that stuff get in the way of a good screed.

Here’s a sampling of Kelly’s opening:

Having picked the Islanders clean, the Leafs left their junk behind – former GM Lou Lamoriello – and headed back north.

You can imagine how that must have felt to fans of the Islanders, all 30 or 40 of them. The iconic Canadian franchise getting the runty American one in a headlock and picking its pockets.

Looking back on it, the Leafs did one thing indisputably right during that switcheroo: they didn’t gloat.

...

Because if the Leafs had gloated, even just a little, even by accident, what is now a very, very bad look would be an untenable one.

Childish insults aside (“30 or 40 fans?” Okay...), it’s at least nice for Kelly to spend a few seconds considering the feelings of someone other than Leafs fans, even if it took three years. That’s a notable change of pace. The Leafs themselves may not have gloated about signing Tavares in the moment, but their legions of fans sure as hell did, and continue to do to this day.

But Kelly’s point is taken. It looked like the Leafs’ story ended here. They got their guy, the Islanders got dumped to the curb and that was that.

Except that wasn’t that.

It’s becoming more and more apparent that the Islanders are the Leafs’ nicer, smarter, more attractive doppelganger.

The Islanders are the team the Leafs thought they would be. They are the team Lamoriello might have built had he stayed. Most importantly, they are a reflected version of all the things that have gone wrong in Toronto.

The Islanders didn’t get contractually worked over by their young stars. The Islanders don’t waste energy getting into slapping contests with the media. The Islanders haven’t built a cult of personality around management. The Islanders don’t talk a lot. The Islanders don’t fold up like a lawn chair when the playoffs start.

At the centre of all those little things that have gone wrong/right sits Lamoriello. I’m not sure the guy owns a computer, never mind knows how to use one. But his old-school approach to roster building, franchise management and media relations is lapping the new-school version Toronto went all-in on.

Lamoriello doesn’t need to know to use a computer. He knows how to hire people who know how to use computers and together, they run the Islanders like an NHL team is supposed to be run. That’s a stark difference from the well-meaning but undermanned skeleton crew that ran the team in the previous administration. More than any individual moves, that’s what Lamoriello has meant to the Islanders. I don’t expect Cathal Kelly - who must now think the Islanders have the “30 or 40” loudest fans in the NHL - to know that.

The kicker is where it gets really good. That’s when Kelly, in all of his reductionist ennui, accidentally explains why the entire hockey world should be rooting for the Islanders this post-season.

The comparison between the two teams already makes the Leafs look bad. But it could get worse. So much worse.

If the Islanders win the Cup, then forget it. That’s all the Leafs will hear about forever. That frustration will lead to more media meltdowns, more lobster-claw grips on sticks, more pressure in the playoffs and more calls to make major changes long before we get back there. People will climb up on management’s back like a million deranged monkeys and never get off.

We can only hope.

Alternate Programming Options:

I know I recommended a sports documentary show in last week’s column but I’m gonna do it again. This one’s different though.

This week, I watched the ESPN 30-for-30 doc on Bruce Lee titled Be Water, and found it very well done. It doesn’t cover all of the details (I’ll elaborate more in a minute) of Lee’s incredible life and career, but it does offer a ton of archival footage, home videos, behind-the-scenes shots and interviews in a very intimate look at the man. It also highlights the prejudice and obstacles he had to overcome as a Chinese man, first as a restless youth sent to America by his exasperated father, then as a martial artist trying to establish schools across the country, then as an actor desperate to star in movies he knew would make a difference to millions of viewers across the globe.

Interviewees include Lee’s wife Linda, his daughter Shannon, and friends, students and colleagues including the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s pretty riveting all the way through, although it does skip around the years a lot. You can watch Be Water on ESPN+ any time or wait for it to pop up on ESPN or ESPN 2 (like I did). You won’t be disappointed.

If you’re looking for something to watch on Bruce Lee even sooner (and cheaper), I recommend Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey, which you can watch on YouTube right now. It’s from 2000, so it’s a little on the older side, but it includes even more details, specifically the time Lee sustained a severe back injury that essentially left him strapped to a hospital bed for six months. Doctors didn’t think he would walk normally ever again, let alone ever do martial arts.

Instead, Lee used the time to read philosophy books, write and perfect his jeet kune do method, which led to his idea of a fighting style that isn’t a style at all and is malleable and adaptable, like water. Sounds a little like something Barry Trotz would say.

I’m not sure why the 30-for-30 doc kinda glossed over that pretty important (and frankly, insane) part of Lee’s life, but Be Water is still excellent. You can’t go wrong with either one, or just popping on any Bruce Lee movie at all.

Classic Islanders Clip Just For fun:

The circumstances are a little different, but maybe we’ll see a similar result. It’s been a long time.