Maybe it’s simply the opponent. I don’t know. But what I do know is that when Ross Johnston plays against the Rangers, which is when I see him most, the Islanders winger spends essentially every moment on the ice stalking Blueshirts while the game goes on around him.
But I know this as well. Johnston and his ilk were prime factors in the Islanders’ 4-0 Game 1 victory over the Flyers on a Monday night in Toronto where the team wearing white staked out its territory like junkyard dogs.
All in a good way.
Like on the shift early in the third period while the Islanders were protecting the 1-0 lead they’d gained on Andy Greene’s score at 6:06 of the first. The puck was put in deep. Philly defenseman Travis Sanheim went to retrieve it. Johnston went to retrieve Sanheim. The winger pinned the defenseman and the puck, linemate Leo Komarov swooped in to win the battle, he found J-G Pageau all alone in the slot, and lickety-split, it was 2-0 at 2:54.
That pretty much was that.
“These two guys bring their 110 percent every day, every night, every practice,” deadline acquisition Pageau said of Komarov, who had four goals and 14 points during the season and Johnston, who chipped in with three goals and one assist. “It’s fun playing with them and the whole group.
“I feel like we have a lot of character and it shows on the ice.”
The Islanders either have two third lines or two fourth lines, depending on the importance of identifying units in that manner. Do you think anyone on the Islanders — including the alternate third/fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck — care a whit about that?
More to the point, do you think major domo Lou Lamoriello or head coach Barry Trotz loses a moment’s sleep trying to figure out the flow chart?
Here is the flow chart on the Island: Lock down the defensive zone, get the puck in deep, win as many of the 50-50 battles as possible, toss in more than a dollop of high-end talent clad in No. 13, and then back that up with more than capable goaltending.
What were the Islanders doing letting Robin Lehner escape last offseason? Why, the Islanders were making room for Semyon Varlamov. What else?
The first and third periods were pristine and the second belonged to Varlamov, who finished the match with a second straight whitewash and a shutout streak of 136:20, just 39 seconds shy of the franchise postseason mark established by Billy Smith in the first Stanley Cup year of 1980. Yes, you are correct. That is a mouthful.
This was one game. But the Islanders got to their game in a hurry just as they have maintained their game under the bubble. The Flyers did sweep the round-robin to get first seed in the East and they did survive the Canadiens in a tight six-game first round, but through 10 games, both Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier have failed to score while Kevin Hayes has gotten one.
The numbers don’t seem to matter to the Islanders, whose pack mentality has been reinforced through this sequestration in a foreign land. Players talk about it so often, each knows he sounds like a walking cliché. But cliché is born from truth.
“I think we’re playing the right way as much as possible and I think that leads to our success,” captain Anders Lee said. “Everyone is playing their roles, all those things that [reporters] probably get sick of hearing but that’s what makes our team successful and that’s the kind of mindset that we have.
“We take pride in every guy going out there playing for one another. It’s a mindset and kind of the culture we have in our room. We take care of one another and I think it shows on the ice. We want to be successful. We want to make a run. We’ve got to have everyone pulling on the rope.”
It does not diminish what the Islanders have done in Toronto to suggest that the pause of four-plus months aided the cause. It is extraordinarily difficult to grind the way Trotz’s team does through the 82-game marathon and then be fresh enough to grind through multiple rounds of the postseason.
But this was the pause that refreshed, while allowing deadline acquisitions Greene — who facially, but thank goodness not temperamentally, has come to resemble Dan Boyle — and Pageau to integrate themselves into the culture and the system.
Opportunity just keeps on knocking for the Islanders. People like Johnston, with a game-high 10 hits in 11:13, keep on knocking on their opponents.
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