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The next challenge for the Islanders is beating a “bunch of jerks.”
That juvenile moniker bestowed upon the Hurricanes by a curmudgeonly Canadian broadcaster helped galvanize that surprising squad all season, all the way into its dramatic 4-3 Game 7 double-overtime victory over the Capitals on Wednesday night in Washington. Brock McGinn clinched the series for Carolina.
After coming back from a 3-2 series deficit, the Canes now come to New York, where the Islanders will have been waiting for 10 days when the second-round series starts with Game 1 on Friday night at Barclays Center.
It’s been a long time since the Isles finished off their first-round sweep of the Penguins, and what comes to them now is very close to a mirror image of a team that works together and is greater than the sum of its parts.
“I think Carolina is a lot more similar to what we are,” goalie Robin Lehner said recently, with the team getting Wednesday off. “They’re very, very good defensively. They play well in all three zones. They work really, really hard.”
What drew the ire of some old-school people around the league was the way the Hurricanes celebrated after home wins, dramatic on-ice choreography after most of those 24 victories in Raleigh, finishing the regular season as the first wild card with 99 points. But they got a little more professional once they got into the postseason, which didn’t keep their boisterous fans from being behind them.
The scene at their suburban arena was outrageous as Justin Williams scored a big-time goal during a 5-2 win in Game 6 Monday, helping to extend the series. And Williams remains at the forefront of Carolina’s revival, named captain this summer before his second season back with the club with which he won his first of three Stanley Cups in 2006.
It was followed by two Cups with the Kings in 2012 and 2014 — and who can forget the way he played in the Stanley Cup final against the Rangers in 2014, en route to winning the Conn Smythe as postseason MVP — after which Williams went to Washington, where he played for two seasons under current Islanders head coach Barry Trotz.
So Trotz may not know him as well as he would have, say, facing Alex Ovechkin, but there is a familiarity there in terms of what to expect.
“If we end up playing Carolina, there’s a lot of character in that room,” Trotz had said after Game 4 in Pittsburgh. “I’ve had Justin Williams and I know his character, I know his leadership. I know that team in Carolina, you watch them, they have a lot of heart. They have some highly skilled players. They might have one of the most underrated ‘D’ corps in the National Hockey League.
“You talk about a team playing as a team, they’re playing as a team.”
That is exactly the same phrase that Trotz has batted around in describing his own team’s success in this surprising season. Just like his Carolina counterpart, Rod Brind’Amour, both men behind the benches have their players buying into a system and buying into the idea that supporting one another is more valuable than just pure talent.
“Biggest thing is we play as a team,” Trotz said. “You have to give a little bit of yourself to be part of something greater. I think everybody has given up something of themselves to be part of something great. I’ll say this, if you don’t have character, you won’t be good.”
So in this battle of wills, what could be the difference? There is the play of Lehner, who has been spectacular for the Islanders as he resurrected his personal life and career while being nominated for both the Masterton and Vezina trophies. He is matched by Petr Mrazek, a bit of a journeyman who has come into his own as the Hurricanes put on a second-half push.
Or could it be the Islanders’ long break that has them rested, generally healthy, and itching to play?
Either way, it is going to be two very similar teams going at it to see which one can outlast the other.
“Honestly,” Trotz said, “I just want to play.”