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Isles Must Still Embrace that Underdog Mentality

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“Keep Proving People Wrong”, – Brock Nelson after winning games three and four in Pittsburgh.

That’s the mantra that the New York Islanders and their fans have continued to abide by since before this season began and well into their sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. It’s a rallying cry that should not change in the slightest when they resume their chase for the Stanley Cup tomorrow night.

After a long eight-day hiatus, the Islanders finally know who they will face in the second round — the Carolina Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes — along with the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets — pulled off the upset of beating not just the higher seed but the division title winner. Just like the Islanders, they were given the underdog label in their series with the Washington Capitals. After defending home ice, winning all three games, those “Bunch of Jerks” fought back from multiple two-goal deficits last night to win in double overtime and knock out the defending Stanley Cup champions.

This matchup definitely makes the whole favorite-underdog dynamic one of the more intriguing factors when breaking down this series for a couple of reasons.

Both the Isles and the Canes were predicted to be two of the teams at the bottom of the standings in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. Pundits of the hockey world weren’t too kind to either club after each team was coming into the regular season having gone through drastic changes. The Islanders were coming off losing captain and the face of the franchise John Tavares, had new coaching staff manned by Barry Trotz, and a brand new system to learn; the Canes were going to have to adjust to a new coach in Rod Brind’Amour, and having traded franchise pieces Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm for Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland. Obviously, neither team got the script. The Islanders rallied around Tavares’ departure and went on to a 103-point season, while Carolina storm-surged their way into the hearts of all hockey fans and ended their ten-year playoff drought.

Going into this series though, the Islanders are considered the favorites. It’s easy to understand why.

They did beat the Penguins in four; are the higher seed; have home ice. Also, they’ve had the chance to rest and recuperate for over a week while the Canes will have only had under 40 hours to recharge and get ready for game one.

But even with all those advantages: Why can’t the Islanders be considered the underdog going into this series? Haven’t they had that status all year long?

From the minute Tavares told the franchise and the fans he was leaving, they were counted out. They were left for dead while the entire hockey world laughed at the carnage left behind.

When they signed Valtteri Filppula, Leo Komarov and Tom Kuhnhackl in the aftermath of Tavares leaving, counted out. All over-the-hill veterans that were just going to be brought in as a patch job as the organization waited for its high-end prospects to make it to the team.

Trading for Matt Martin and signing goalie Robin Lehner, who was coming off the most trying season professionally and mentally, counted out. Two guys whose careers were at a crossroads and would maybe find their place on a supposedly bad team.

Playing rock-solid defense and getting above average goaltending the entire season and in their sweep of Pittsburgh, nope still not worthy. Yep, I’m looking right at you Ryan Lambert.

Do I need to go on?

The point is, they are still the underdogs.

Matt Martin is right, they do have just as good a chance as any of the eight teams remaining. But as they’ve done, and as Trotz has instilled in them from the minute he arrived last June, it’s the Us against the World mentality.

Vegas, writers, and maybe some in the fan base can all clamor about the Isles being favorites heading into tomorrow. If you’ve watched this team all year long though, they don’t think of themselves as just that, favorites. Playing with that proverbial chip on their shoulder has been the driving force for why the Islanders are still playing and have a chance at playing well deep into May and early June.

So, nothing needs to change from an Isles standpoint.

They’re not going to look ahead, they’re going to focus on the task at hand; that’s how Trotz sees it and it’s how the team goes about it too. It’s the reason they swept the Penguins, and, it’ll be the reason why if they advance to the Conference Final.

The Islanders are still the underdogs no matter has happened.

I’m not the kind to preview the series, I’ll leave that for the experts.

But I do have my thoughts on how the Islanders can win this series and get to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1993. Here’s five of them below:

1. Take advantage of home ice. While it won’t be the same raucous-esque atmosphere like the Coliseum, Barclays Center can still be vital for the Isles in this series. They were just as good there as they were in Uniondale before they left in February — the records were basically identical. Getting to start at home should get the Isles back into rhythm as soon as they hit the ice tomorrow. They did it against Pittsburgh and it played a huge factor in the outcome of the series. The fans will be juiced no matter what, but coming out of the gates as the fresher team after the long layoff will only make it more uncomfortable for Carolina and really put the pressure on them.

2. Be better on special teams. The Hurricanes were close to abysmal in their series against Washington with both the power play and penalty kill. The Isles must take advantage of that. On the penalty kill, they don’t need to change a thing. The power play, despite getting two series-changing tallies against the Pens, has had over a full week to work on figuring out how to score on their opportunities.

3. Shut down Sebastian Aho. Ever since Aho came to the NHL, he’s been a headache when he faces the Islanders — eight points in 13 career games. But just like they stymied Sidney Crosby, the Islanders defense will have to do the same with the versatile winger. Carolina’s attack starts and ends with the 21-year old. Take away his opportunities and force the rest of the Canes forwards to beat you.

4. Take away the Canes speed. All season and against the Caps, the Canes flashed just how quick a team they were. Last night, they skated circles around the Capitals in overtime and that eventually led them to their victory. The Islanders defense will have their hands full, but they had that same predicament in round one with Pitt and they found a way to neutralize it. Stop the Canes forecheck and speed — their bread and butter — and wait for them to make mistakes.

5. The bottom-six shines. This could be where the series is won. Carolina’s bottom-six was instrumental in their seven-game victory getting outstanding performances from Warren Foegele, Lucas Wallmark, Brock McGinn and Jordan Martinook. But, the Isles got that same showing from their guys — Filppula, Komarov, Anthony Beauvillier, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck — and were even more effective. All these guys are going to battle and grind to give their team the advantage. If it happens to benefit the Islanders, it could decide who moves on.

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