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Islanders tie series vs. Bruins by continuing to embrace four-line identity

Barry Trotz says if he wasn’t coaching, he’d be glued to his television watching the New York Islanders playing their riveting playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

But if Trotz wasn’t coaching, the Islanders probably wouldn’t be there.

Apart from the Islanders’ defensive stoutness, the evidence of the head coach’s impact is the way New York embraces and embodies the idea of a four-line team. That, and the fact the Islanders are in their eighth playoff series since Trotz arrived three years ago, and New York’s five series wins – and counting? – are more than the franchise won over the previous 30 years.

Yeah, there is a “Barry Trotz Effect” to the Islanders, who beat the Boston Bruins 4-1 Saturday on Long Island to even the ferocious East Division final at 2-2.

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No individual Islander is as good as the best four Bruins, although New York dynamo Mathew Barzal is pretty close when he plays the way he did Saturday, beautifully setting up Kyle Palmieri for his team’s first goal and scoring the winner himself by batting a deflected puck past Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask at 13:03 of the third period.

But the Islanders have depth and balance and, more than that, clarity and consistency among players about their roles and what they have to do each night to help New York win.

If you weren’t sure what the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about, you needed to only pay attention to Trotz during his 12-minute pre-game Zoom call with reporters.

“That’s the hard mental part of playoff hockey that people don’t understand, that it’s not going to feel good all the time, it’s not going to look good all the time,” Trotz explained. “And you might not get nothing done. I mean, you could go 58 minutes, 59 minutes in a game where nothing’s happened because both teams are razor sharp in terms of their detail and protecting ice and all that. And then one split second, the game could be over. So that’s the hard mental part of the game that people don’t understand. You can’t relax.

“We know that you stick with it, and you’re resilient and understand that (trailing in a series) is not the way we want it to go. Every team would love to blow through the other team four straight and win a Stanley Cup and go home. But that’s fantasy, that doesn’t happen. You’ve got to stay in the moment and you’ve got to be willing to commit in all those areas. This is a good series. I was saying, if I wasn’t coaching, I’d be been watching the series because it’s a helluva series right now.”

On his team’s relentless physicality: “You start to take the other person out of their game. That’s what physical play does. It wears you out, it wears you out mentally. Some guys are mentally stronger than others. Some guys have a bigger backbone, as I would say, when it comes to those situations. And that’s why, I think in playoffs, (hitting) gets ramped up a little bit.

“It’s like a boxer. You get hit enough, at some point you’re going to go down. That’s how you win fights. You’ve got to … win your battles to get free from people, and get to the inside. And that’s what playoff hockey is. As much as it is about skill, it’s as much about will.”

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And he explained the difference in coaching the four-line Islanders compared to when he won a Stanley Cup in 2018 with the Washington Capitals, whose top-end stars were comparable to the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy.

“It is a little bit (different) I think with the, I’ll say, elite superstars,” he said. “Those players demand ice time and they’ve earned their ice time over the course of time. But sometimes you have to manage them a little bit more in different areas and different parts of their game, so you find other ways to get other guys involved.

“With this group, with the four lines, they all know that they’re going to have to play, they all know that they’re going to have to play against everybody and they all know that they’re going to have to find ways to contribute. And they have. I always say: ‘Know who you are as a player.’ And I think we have a good grasp of who we are.”

And then the Islanders played Game 4 the way Trotz explained his team. Brilliant.

MAT’S BAT ATTACK

With no goals and just four points through his first eight playoff games, Barzal has been better with each game in this series and was flying on Saturday. He was the game’s first star, setting up one goal and scoring another before the Islanders added a couple of empty-netters.

“If we lose three straight in the playoffs and I haven’t produced or my game has been off, then obviously I’m hard on myself,” Barzal told reporters after the game. “This is the playoffs; this is just about winning hockey games, whether you’re the guy that night that gets a winning goal or the guy that just plays sound all night and helps your team in different ways. I’m obviously hard on myself, but this time of year it’s just about getting wins.”

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INTESTINAL FORTITUDE

After disappearing at times amid the physical mayhem during the first two games in Boston, Barzal was in the middle of everything on Saturday.

He was lucky to escape with only a minor penalty for a high crosscheck on Curtis Lazar in the first period, and lucky to escape with his reproductive organs intact after getting speared in the crotch by David Krejci in the second.

Barzal had given Krejci four, quick crosschecks from behind during a puck battle in the corner when the veteran Bruin turned on him. Initially, Krejci was given a major penalty for spearing but it was reviewed and downgraded to a slashing minor.

“He’s an elite player with superstar, superstar skill and when he’s going out there, we’re following right behind him,” teammate Casey Cizikas said after his empty-net goal. “He’s our top guy and you know guys are going to try to take runs at him. There’s no give up, there’s no give in that kid. You could see that tonight.”

IT’S PLAYOFFS WHEN…

Boston winger Taylor Hall had his first NHL fight since 2011 when he accepted a first-period challenge from Islander defenceman Scott Mayfield.

“We’re playing a lot against each other,” Mayfield said. “He likes to get to the net, he’s got speed, so I need to make sure I’m physical on him. Playoffs get emotional, and I think that’s what that was. Good for him; I know he’s not known for doing that, that’s for sure.”

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