Barry Trotz has experienced it all in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The New York Islanders coach reached the postseason with the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals a combined 10 times before he finally hoisted the Cup with the Capitals in 2018.
Now he’s trying to get back to the top of the mountain with the Islanders, who lead the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Semifinals heading into Game 2 at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
It’s essentially the same Lightning who eliminated the Islanders in the Eastern Conference Final in six games last season.
Trying to figure out a way to inspire the Capitals three seasons ago, Trotz turned to Jamie Clark, who failed to reach the top of Mount Everest twice but accomplished the feat in 1997 and again in 2010. Washington defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in five games to win its first championship.
“I think he failed the first two times, he got farther and farther and he was asked, ‘Do you have what it takes to climb Mount Everest?’ His response was, ‘That’s why I’m going back,’ and he climbed Mount Everest,” Trotz said Monday. “I think that applies to his individual experience, [but] it applies to teams. You’re not going to go as far as you think you can and you have to harden, you have to learn from it and then you have to go back and push to get to the next level. I think that applies to a lot of hockey teams as well, and in sport. It’s not always going to be the first journey you’ll do it and that’s it. You sometimes have to have that heartache and understanding of you have to push through. As much as it is physically, it’s more of a mental approach in the playoffs.”
The Islanders nearly pushed through last season but fell short against the Lightning in a series that featured three one-goal games and ended on an overtime goal by Tampa Bay forward Anthony Cirelli in Game 6.
But following a 2-1 win at the Lightning in Game 1 on Sunday, the Islanders are three victories from their first appearance in the Cup Final since 1984. Teams that take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-7 NHL semifinal are 76-7 (91.6 percent).
Trotz pointed out that nearly every team has experienced failure before achieving its goal. The Detroit Red Wings lost in the Cup Final in 1995 and the Western Conference Final in 1996 before winning back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998. Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the Red Wings in the Cup Final in 2008, then defeated them in the Final the following season.
Then there are the Lightning, who won 62 games and the Presidents’ Trophy in 2018-19 but were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in four games in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round. Tampa Bay hasn’t lost a playoff series since.
“There’s a lot of stories like that through the NHL,” Trotz said. “Every step that you take is part of the journey. If it was easy, as they say, everybody would do it. It’s not that easy.
“You have to learn from experiences. Trust me, you learn more from losing sometimes than you do from winning because it hardens you. You understand the moments a little bit better, and then you get to a point where you don’t want to lose anymore.”
Trotz and his players know this series is far from over. They realize the chances of them limiting the Lightning’s top line of Ondrej Palat (zero), Brayden Point (two) and Nikita Kucherov (one) to three shots on goal again are minimal. But it’s a challenge they know they need to overcome during this climb up the playoff mountain.
“What you find in series is when you win a game, the desperation level on the other side goes up,” Trotz said. “You just don’t want ours to go down. We want to see if we can find another level of … I’ll say resiliency. Not really desperation, but another level of bite where we say, ‘You know what? You can raise your level, but we’re going to raise ours here.’ That’s what you try to look for and try to replicate.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds, but if you can push them out of their game a little bit and get a little bit more momentum, then it can be effective.”