UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The ice pick hung from the top shelf of Josh Bailey’s locker stall, dangling between a medical dopp kit and a pair of hockey pants still caked with sweat. Inspired by a motivational speech from a professional adventurer named Jamie Clarke, who twice failed to climb Mount Everest before finally reaching the summit, the tool functions as an in-house award following every Islanders victory, a symbol of dedication and sticktoitiveness.
It was given to the perfect candidate on Wednesday night.
Red-cheeked and swarmed with cameras, Bailey let out a sigh of relief. Less than 10 seconds had remained in regulation when the winger barreled down the slot and redirected a centering pass that clanged off the far post. “That was tough to shake,” Bailey said. “I was worried I’d have to see that one in my nightmares for a while.” Instead it was his putback goal, struck 4:39 into overtime of Game 1 in the first round against Pittsburgh, that lifted the Islanders to a 4–3 win at Nassau Coliseum. “Little bit of redemption,” Bailey said.
Buckle up, girls and boys, because here is what these playoffs hath wrought already: Four unanswered tallies by eighth-seeded Columbus against the runaway Stanley Cup favorites in Tampa Bay, two third-period goals to complete visiting St. Louis’s comeback over Winnipeg, and one puck that struck San Jose captain Joe Pavelski’s face before caroming into the Nashville net.
Then there was the instant classic along Hempstead Turnpike, where the Islanders survived 44 total shots from the Penguins and defenseman Justin Schultz’s game-tying strike with 89 seconds left—not to mention three torturous video reviews, including an anti-climatic delay confirming whether Bailey's winner should indeed count—to take a 1–0 series lead.
“If every game is like that,” center Mat Barzal said, “it’s going to be a roller coaster, for sure.”
Or, as Bailey succinctly explained, “That’s playoff hockey.”
It had been four years since this ramshackle building had hosted a postseason game, shuttered for renovations after receiving a proper New York sendoff—read: brawls, beer bottles and stolen seat cushions—when the Isles beat Washington in overtime of Game 6 in 2015. The diehards returned in full force as expected, firing up tailgate grills by noon and serenading Pittsburgh’s captain with chants of “CROSBY SUCKS!” as soon as the visitors emerged for warmups.
“Still can’t help but get those jitters before you go out there,” Bailey said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Of course, it was also about goalie Robin Lehner stonewalling Pittsburgh with 41 saves, including a lunging backdoor gem against winger Patric Hornqvist in the first period. And the Islanders’ beleaguered power play, which finished the regular season ranked 28th league-wide, converting on winger Jordan Eberle’s nifty feed to Brock Nelson for a 2–1 lead. And winger Tomas Kühnhackl, a two-time Cup champion in Pittsburgh, twice appearing to score against his former team only to have both disallowed by replay.
“There were a lot of twists and turns in that game,” coach Barry Trotz said. “I liked our composure on the bench. We just stayed with it.”
That has been the Islanders’ way since Trotz stepped behind the bench last summer, quite possibly still stinking of victory champagne after capturing the ultimate prize with the Capitals. He inherited the NHL’s bottom-ranked scoring defense and promptly turned them into its stingiest, a transformation last achieved by the 1918–19 Ottawa Senators, who largely benefitted from a contingent of players returning from World War I. The Islanders, meanwhile, lost their captain and leading scorer to free agency yet still finished fourth in the conference, one point behind Washington for the division lead. “They didn’t flinch at all, which is good,” Trotz said.
It was this desire for resilience that led Trotz to invite Clarke to speak during training camp, as he had done with the Capitals prior to their magical run last year. The talk was long, eclipsing an hour and a half. But the players were hooked, Bailey included. Drafted in 2008 and debuting amid a 26-win debacle that season, the soft-spoken 29-year-old is now the Islanders’ longest-tenured member. How fitting, then, that it was Bailey who pounced onto a loose puck after Barzal’s backhander hit the post, pummeling the game-winner past goalie Matt Murray before hurling himself against the glass with both skates in the air, as though he were trying to touch the top of a mountain in a single bound.