The Islanders' Jordan Eberle celebrates after scoring a goal during Game 3 of the first-round playoff series against the Penguins on April 14, 2019, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.

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Graziano: With Sweep In Reach, Isles Refuse To Take Series For Granted

Andy Graziano
April 15, 2019 - 12:13 pm
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Once left in the trash heap of NHL preseason predictions following the departure of John Tavares, the New York Islanders continued their amazing ascent by moving within one victory from sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Sunday afternoon’s 4-1 win at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh was the most impressive of the three so far in this series. Coach Barry Trotz led his ragtag bunch of worker bees to victory by using suffocating defense and tight neutral zone play. Trotz has been preaching a team-first attitude all season long, and nothing is expected to change for as long as the Islanders continue taking fans on this wonderful, magical ride.

“It starts with a care for each other," Trotz said in his postgame news conference. "We get rid of all the ‘me first.’ It's 'we' instead of 'me.' That's what we've talked about since Day 1 of training camp."

This attitude has been ingrained into the players' brains, and it’s evident when you hear their comments in a subdued locker room where you or I would be bursting out at the seams with excitement.

"When we win the fourth one, we can be happy," goalie Robin Lehner said. "Right now we have three games, and we need to win one more. ... You can't take anything for granted."

Added center Brock Nelson: "We're happy to be in this position, but as Barry said, the fourth one is going to be the toughest one. You have to expect their best."

And the on-ice leader of the Islanders, Anders Lee, closed with this gem, taken right out of the Trotz encyclopedia of winning: "It's still a long series. We can’t get too ahead of ourselves. We haven’t done anything yet. We put ourselves in a good position."

Co-owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky have a lot to be proud of, and both should be basking in the playoff glow that permeates the team at present. They stuck with their plan and did not waver, first bringing in president/general manager Lou Lamoriello, then hitting the grand slam when Trotz fell into their laps. They entrusted the pair with the ups and downs of Joshua Ho-Sang and the development of Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield. There was also the recall and permanent address for Devon Toews as well as the decision not to sell the farm at the trade deadline. Even inserting Tom Kuhnhackl into the lineup when the series began, when Michael Dal Colle was working so well with Nelson and Josh Bailey, has worked out.

It’s calm. Composure. The collective belief in the system, and each other, has led New York to this position. Whenever the magic decides to flee --whether it be next week, next month or in the middle of June -- the Islanders aren't league doormats anymore. No longer can the organization be laughed at and mocked. That has now turned to respectful nods of appreciation for a team that just imposes its will on the opposition. Both on and off the ice.

When you read the always-fantastic "The Skinny" by super statistician Eric Hornick, you see things that just jump off the page.

• The Penguins have led for 3:17 over the first three games.

• No Islanders goalie or coach had ever won his first two playoff games. Both Lehner and Trotz have now won their first three.

• New York has held Sidney Crosby without a point in the first three games of the series. They have never held him pointless in three consecutive regular-season games.

There’s plenty more in there, but those three alone might make a nonbeliever a believer. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of the team or not.

New York has worked itself into a similar situation, leading a series three games to none, nine times. They have never lost. In NHL history, teams leading by that margin in a seven-game series are 186-4. Islanders right wing Leo Komarov scored his first goal in 37 games in the third period Sunday to give his team some much-needed breathing room before Lee tallied his first career playoff goal into an empty net, for goodness sakes.

While this series is not over and the Islanders won’t let incomplete work be their demise, you can’t help but look ahead, as a fan, to a second-round matchup against the Washington Capitals or Carolina Hurricanes.

The signs are there. You just have to open your eyes.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN