The New York Islanders made very short work of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sweeping the best-of-seven opening round series in four straight, the Isles have vaulted themselves right into the second round of the playoffs. They are a team that imbues a sizable amount of heart, and it is has become quite contagious.
Now primed to face the NHL’s “bunch of jerks” – the Carolina Hurricanes – THW spoke one-on-one with MSG Networks’ studio analyst for Islanders hockey, Jennifer Botterill. She shared not only on what makes this Cinderella-team from Long Island so particularly enjoyable to watch, but also offered her thoughts on what the Isles need to do to dispel Carolina.
While NBC will be airing the games between the Islanders and the Hurricanes, MSG Networks will provide complete postgame coverage after every game during the series. Botterill will be joined by Bill Pidto and Islanders’ great Butch Goring in studio for the entire series. Additionally, AJ Mleczko and Brendan Burke will be joining the postgame at various times throughout the series.
Lehner’s Inspirational Play in Net
There are plenty of ingredients within the 2018-19 Islanders that have given them a delightful, quasi-underdog sort of feel. The reigning Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz at the helm. The best checking-line of their generation in Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin. An aged guard in the likes of Johnny Boychuk, Valtteri Filppula, and Leo Komarov to add some flavor to the mix.
Botterill has been able to be up close and personal with all of the Islander players and staff on a regular basis, and truly has garnered a sense of how each unique piece fits together. A perfect blend in what Isles fans hope is a long run towards the Stanley Cup.
But what is arguably the best feel-good story of the season has to belong to Isles’ goaltender Robin Lehner. Having gotten the necessary help he needed during the 2018 off-season, Lehner has shined forth from struggles with bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD, and drug and alcohol addiction. He subsequently combined with goaltending partner Thomas Greiss to capture the William M. Jennings trophy for giving up the least amount of goals in the NHL.
Additionally, Lehner’s overcoming of personal struggles to generate a record of 25-13-5 with six shutouts – and posting a tremendous .930% save percentage and measly 2.13 goals-against average in the process – has seen him be named a finalist for the Bill Masterton Trophy. The award is given annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey. Quite often it is a player like Lehner who has overcome adversity in the process of playing superb hockey.
Botterill is certainly no stranger to inspirational play herself. A four-time Olympian during her playing career, she won three gold medals and a silver for Canada. Like many of us, Botterill’s own heartstrings have been touched by Lehner’s story this season.
“That’s a great way to put it – he has been very inspirational,” Botterill said about the 27-year-old Swedish goalie. “There are many things that have impressed me about him throughout this season. One of the biggest attributes that he’s demonstrated I think is just a tremendous personality. He’s shown such a high level of gratitude for this experience. Even from when he first signed and came to the organization, he said that he felt a sense of confidence and belief in the locker room within the group of guys, from his teammates.”
Botterill went on to say, “For (Lehner), he’s found this incredible way to get his life on track, and to enjoy and appreciate the experience of playing the game. Playing with his team and the organization. He’s really found this great balance between having this high-level of elite performance and so many personal achievements. But anytime you ask him about those personal accomplishments, or stats, or impressive details about his individual performance, he never even hesitates in crediting his teammates immediately anytime you ask him… He’s been so open with the entire media all year. He certainly deserves a lot of credit even though he’s so quick to transfer that over to his teammates and the organization.”
The Heart of Isles vs Canes
As great as Lehner has been in net, the Islanders will continue to have their hands full when they square-off with the Carolina Hurricanes to open the series on Friday night Apr. 26, 2019. All joking aside, the ‘Canes aren’t jerks – they are a legitimate contender. While it took them a full seven games to do so, Carolina eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in their own first-round series.
Hurricanes’ defender Jaccob Slavin is better than a point-per-game player right now, as he enters Long Island with nine assists in seven games – a number that leads his team in scoring and ties him with San Jose’s Erik Karlsson for most assists in the league. Meanwhile, Carolina’s Warren Foegele, Jordan Staal, Dougie Hamilton, and Teuvo Teräväinen each have at least three playoff goals in seven games.
The Islanders will need to maintain their confidence and remain steadfast in order to move on. Lehner’s eye-popping .956 SV% through the first-round helps immensely. For a team that put forth some modest scoring during the regular season, Jordan Eberle’s four goals in four games – and two assists to boot – have inked him as a difference maker. The Clutterbuck-Cizikas-Martin trio have been stymieing the opposing offense like there is no tomorrow, and will make things a living hell for Teräväinen, Nino Niederreiter, Sebastien Aho and many of the sleeker ‘Canes.
Botterill told us, “Trotz has spoken all year about (the players) living their lives the right way, both as hockey players and as people away from the game as well. I think that’s something that’s been very contagious for the group.”
Indeed it has been, and the contagiousness has sparked them to string playoff wins together. These Islanders believe in one another and trust one another – Botterill has had a front-row seat to that all season long.
She was able to go far more in-depth with an analysis of both the Islanders themselves and the series. Here’s what Botterill had to tell us.
THW: The Islanders scored the second-least amount of goals of the 16 teams to have made the playoffs – not one of their forwards reached the 30-mark. That being said, what assets do you feel the team’s forwards possess that have allowed this team to jump so strongly out of the playoff gate?
Jennifer Botterill: “You think about all season long, they’ve had different people that have stepped up. That has been a philosophy of the team, and very noticeable from covering them throughout the season. It’s never been about one star player or one talented player. If you look at the course of the season, if you look at key games down the stretch, or when you look at that first round, people really stepped up, and elevated their game and helped the team when they needed it.
If you compare those different things from the regular season, to the final stretch in the regular season, to the playoffs, it’s been different people that have come through. Credit to the team in terms of their preparation. Trotz just said about what a pleasure it’s been to coach this team. The way that he described it, he said ‘You know, they’re not afraid of working hard.’ I think they’ve just had this collective belief where it’s about the team, it’s about everybody contributing. ‘Nobody is just along for the ride’, they’ve said all season long. Nobody is a passenger. Everybody is here to contribute in whatever way.
That fourth line is just such a strong example of that. The Clutterbuck-Cizikas-Martin-line, where it’s not always about points for them, but it’s ‘what can we do to establish great energy, a great pace for the team, physical play’, and then adding some skill. I think it’s really been everybody stepping up to help the team in whatever way they possibly can.”
THW: When facing the ‘Canes, what will have to be the Islanders’ keys to success in order to make it onto the semi-finals?
JB: “One thing I think that is important to establish early in the series is physical play. You’ve seen it so often where Martin comes out, or somebody else on the team comes out, and has some big hits to establish a good physical presence to try to slow down the pace, and take away time and space from the other team.
I think physical presence is a good one. For (the Islanders), they have talked about working on aspects of their game over the last 10 days. A second element would be just making sure that they are sharp and game-ready would be a key. Goaltending is always so key in the playoffs as well, so that’s another one.
For them being able to keep everyone involved. Rolling their four lines. Rolling their three D-pairings. That ties into discipline as well and making smart decisions. They sort of feed off of each other. If they’re playing well and everybody’s involved in the game, that’s when they often feel like their contributions are the best.
There’s so many different aspects that come into play, but I think when you roll those four lines, and you get everybody involved, everybody ready to chip in – whether it’s getting the goal, or making the pass, or just making a good solid hit or making a shot block – whatever it might be – when they have everybody involved that helps the team a lot.”
THW: What concerns you about the Hurricanes’ lineup, and how can the Isles go about neutralizing that particular concern?
JB: “Carolina has some very talented players that played well in the first series. They’ve got some great defensemen who are solid and also contribute offensively with goals and assists. For the Islanders, it’s just being conscious and aware of Carolina’s D jumping up into the play and joining the rush. Playing tightly in the defensive zone.
Really all season it’s been making subtle adjustments for their opponents, but always playing their game as well.
It’s being conscious. Being aware. Knowing your opponents. Respecting them, which they clearly do. They have always taken such pride in their defensive game. The Islanders forwards coming back on the back-check. If they’re solid to all of those aspects of the game, that gives them a good chance of performing the way that they want to.”
THW: Who would you say has been New York’s unsung hero thus far in the postseason?
JB: “Maybe the D-pairing of (Adam) Pelech and (Ryan) Pulock. Eberle stepped up and had an amazing round-one, but he got a lot of attention for that. (Joshua) Bailey played well. Even (Matt) Barzal had a lot of key assists. I think they’ve received a lot of attention for that. So if you wanted some ‘unsung’, I’d say Pelech and Pollock. Maybe the whole defensive corps there.
If you look at that first round on being able to shut down the talented Penguins team. For me, it’s just (Pelech’s and Pulock’s) solid play in the defensive zone. Making the quick, smart breakout pass. Playing well down low in the D-zone. Being able to neutralize talented offensive players, that’s probably the first D-pair that I’d mention that I think deserves a lot of credit.”
THW: Between yourself, AJ Mleczko, Shannon Hogan and the rest of the team, MSG Networks provides some really great coverage for Islanders hockey. Of the four different series that hockey fans can tune into for round-two, why is the Islanders’ series the “can’t miss” one to watch?
JB: “They’ve just been such an engaging team all year. Trotz made a comment about how they’ve been a pleasure to coach, but he also talked about their resiliency. I think that with covering the team, I’ve had an inside perspective on it, but they’ve just been such a great collective group.
They’ve been exciting to watch. I think they’ve just found a way to get the results that they’ve wanted – it’s not always the same way. Their response. If they’re down a goal or down a couple goals, or if the game is tough, they’ve always had a pretty exciting response to adversity – small or big throughout the season.
I do believe that they play a very unselfish game where it’s fun to watch them as they roll their lines and feed off of each other. Along with some beautiful offensive plays, just a solid defensive game, and some really outstanding goaltending makes it pretty fun hockey to watch.
I know that they have a very loyal fanbase. I think that’s one thing too with the players that they have a strong dynamic on the ice and off the ice, and they also feel very grateful for the support and the loyalty of all of their fans.”
Setting the Standard for Women’s NHL Coverage
It is important to note that MSG Networks’ decision to bring Jennifer Botterill aboard as an Islanders analyst has been a first-rate maneuver. Botterill is extremely knowledgeable, exudes professionalism and grace to the fullest, and is one of the kindest souls in the game. She treats people the way in which she would want to be treated.
Additionally, MSG’s coverage during the opening round of the playoffs saw them set the stage with sizable coverage from female broadcasters. With Shannon Hogan hosting and Botterill alongside in the studio, AJ Mleczko joined in while on-site in Pittsburgh. Behind the camera, Paula McHale served as the producer, thus rounding out an all all-female crew.
Be sure to tune into MSG Network’s postgame coverage throughout the second round to hear more of Botterill’s insight. She remains closely engaged with the Islanders for the remainder of their journey. One which we hope culminates into Lord Stanley’s Cup being raised over their heads.
No matter the outcome, Botterill will be there to help record and tell the tale.