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NY Islanders face Penguins with emotions high, pressure low in playoffs

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

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"They have to realize that if you want to be a playoff team, and you want to be a Stanley Cup contender, it's the teams that grind it out, that play with that desperation in their game to win those battles."

Those were New York Islanders head coach Jack Capuano's words after his team had a second consecutive defeat in which the game was lost in the third period. After managing to hang on and defeat the Florida Panthers, 4-3, despite allowing three third-period goals, the Islanders then watched a 3-1 lead against the Ottawa Senators evaporate after allowing four unanswered goals in the final frame.

Two night later, the Montreal Canadiens scored three times in the third, breaking a 2-2 tie and sending the Islanders to a second of three defeats on a four-game homestand.

That's when Capuano, with his team sitting three points out of a playoff spot with 18 games to go after that loss to the Canadiens, gave his team a reality check, reminding them what it takes to win in the NHL.

After shutting out the Panthers to end their homestand, the Islanders headed off to play five of their next six games away from Nassau Coliseum. That road trip couldn't have come at a better time for them.

"That was the dull point of the season where we knew we really had to right the ship a little bit and turn things around," said defenseman Travis Hamonic after practice on Tuesday. "You get on the road and try to do some of the little things right and that's when you play road hockey. It turned the season around for us in a way that we were able to have more success down the stretch."

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Not only was it beneficial to play on the road for the sake of getting away from the pressures of hearing the home crowd's displeasure after those forgettable third periods, it allowed the Islanders set the wheels in motion for their playoff push. They would finish 14-6-4 on the road, compared to 10-11-3 at home.

During that road trip, the Islanders found their game; and after a pair of two-goal losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 10 days, April arrived and that's when they made their move.

The Islanders started April 8-0-2 in their first 10 games, including a wild matinee in Winnipeg that ended on John Tavares' shootout winner. Those two points gave them possession of their playoff destiny. A shootout loss to Carolina three nights later, coupled with a Jets' defeat, was enough for the Islanders to secure their first playoff berth since 2007.

They now face the daunting task of knocking off the high-powered Penguins. No one is giving the Islanders a shot in the series. It may be a quick one, but considering the way the young talent on their roster has been developed, it's just the experience and heavily inexperience roster needs going forward.

No Islander has played more playoff games in their career than goaltender Evgeni Nabokov (80). Only Marty Reasoner (23 games) is close. With the Islanders as heavy underdogs, the pressure is all on the Penguins. After what happened in their opening round series a year ago against Philadelphia, Pittsburgh cannot have a early exit. Not after their success during the regular season and not after the additions general manager Ray Shero made.

The Islanders, on the other hand, can play loose, pressure-free hockey. "Maybe it's a good thing," said Capuano about the inexperience of some of his players. "Maybe they don't know any better?"

Capuano said he's leaned on the 11 Islanders who've played in the postseason before. There is only 113 games of playoff experience on the roster, but those players he's used as an extension of the coaching staff.

The key, with that inexperience, is to keep the nerves at bay.

"[It's a] very emotional time of year, but you've got to control your emotions and steer them in the right direction," said Islanders captain Mark Streit. "That's what I told the guys. You've got to make your own experience out there. We have a great team. We've been playing really well. The last 2-3 weeks we've been playing playoff hockey because the games meant so much to us."

"I'm not going to sugar coat it," said Hamonic. "Are we excited as a group? Yeah, anyone would be when they have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. You grow up dreaming to have the opportunity to play for that Cup. I don't know how many times I've won it playing street hockey as a kid. You've got to get to the dance first. You've got to make sure you generate your emotions properly, but still use them to your advantage."

Hamonic may have dreamed every day of playing for the Stanley Cup, but now that he actually has a chance to fulfill that fantasy, he understands it's something that doesn't happen every year.

"You've got to make sure you take full advantage of this opportunity because it's not a guarantee you're going to make the playoffs every year anyway. It's never guaranteed how long you're going to play, so you want to be able to look back when it's all said and done on your career that you gave it everything you had every time you touched the ice because it's a long lifetime after you're done playing hockey and you never know how often you're going to get these opportunities."

Teams played 48 games to get this opportunity and as we saw last year, even No. 8 seeds have a shot to win the Cup. The Islanders weren't in many people's Eastern Conference top 8 in January, but their young players have contributed in big ways and GM Garth Snow's moves have paid off. And through adversity, they didn't fall apart.

"This team has been resilient," said Capuano. "This team has been under a lot of pressure for the last month and a half or two to play good hockey to get ourselves in the playoffs, and they've done that.

"They've worked extremely hard. They're excited, but at the same time, they know how we have to play."

Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy

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