How the Islanders are embracing their ultimate underdog status

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Kevin Connolly has never been shy about his love for the New York Islanders. The Long Island native, most famous for his role as “E” on “Entourage,” directed the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Big Shot,” about the time a con man briefly bought Connolly’s favorite team in 1996. Connolly is often spotted at Islanders games, has developed close relationships with the team’s current owners and players, and his Twitter feed sometimes gets carried away with his passion for all things blue and orange.

“Twitter is a cesspool and I hate it,” Connolly says. “The only time I like it is when I can engage about the Islanders, it’s fun.”

But in his years of support — including nearly three decades of heartbreak, dysfunction, mediocrity and now an exciting run to the Eastern Conference finals — Connolly has noticed his team can be a lightning rod.

“It just feels like people are constantly hating on the Islanders,” Connolly says. “I mean, I got it in the mid-’90s, but what could you say about this team? There’s nothing bad about this team. They’re pretty likable.”

Recently, Connolly decided to engage with one of his most frequent trolls. Connolly sent a DM: “Dude, why the Islanders? Out of all of the teams?”

The Twitter user’s response: “Because honestly, I get the biggest reaction out of their base.”

“He talks s— about the Islanders, because he knows the Islanders’ Twitter mob will all come at him,” Connolly says. “And he loves it.”

Welcome to the world of the New York Islanders, where the fan base — like the team — has adopted an us-against-the-world mentality.

After slumping before the pandemic pause (losing 11 of their last 13), the Isles were the only team to emerge from the qualification round. They were often the most dominant team in the Toronto bubble, thanks to their stingy defensive structure, strong team identity stemming from coach Barry Trotz and ability to close out games (through the first three rounds, they outscored teams 22-7 in the third period).

But despite all of that, they had to battle the narrative of being “boring” and “too defensive,” despite entering this round as the highest-scoring team remaining, averaging 3.38 goals per game. Says Connolly: “Eighty percent of the people I talk to complain about the trap. They don’t even know what the trap is. And it’s not what they’re doing!”

The Islanders are a team without a true superstar, though 23-year-old Mathew Barzal is just on the cusp. According to Fanatics, Barzal did not have one of the NHL’s top 20 selling jerseys this season, but has jumped into the top 10 since the restart. The Islanders’ most distinctive and fan-cherished line is … their fourth line. While it contributes to team success, grinders typically aren’t the reason casual fans jump on a bandwagon.

Now the Isles face a 2-0 hole in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, whom many pundits are anointing the team of destiny in this unusual 2020 tournament. That leaves the Islanders with their backs against the wall entering Game 3 tonight — a position, quite frankly, they’re used to.

“They like being the underdog,” says AJ Mleczko, the NBC analyst who is working Islanders pregame and postgame coverage for MSG Network during this series. “It’s not like these guys grew up on Long Island with that Islanders mentality. [Nor did] Barry Trotz. But I do think that once you get there, once you live on the Island, and once you understand that you are written off, they understand it. There’s a belief they’re an also-ran to other teams in the market, the Rangers and the Devils, and that’s why they have a chip on their shoulders. But I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. I think it drives them.”

Just consider how much the Islanders endured to get to this point of respectability. After the dynasty in the early 1980s that won four straight Stanley Cups, the franchise hit a series of malfunctions.

  • There was the ill-received “fisherman” rebrand.

  • John Spano — with $5 million in his net worth — conned the NHL and bought the team in 1996. (Spano relinquished control, and was later sentenced to 71 months in federal prison on various fraud charges.)

  • GM Mike Milbury made several disastrous trades in the 2000s, shipping Zdeno Chara, Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen out of town, and bypassed Marian Gaborik and Dany Heatley to select a goalie, Rick DiPietro, at No. 1 — and made him the “Bobby Bonilla of hockey” as DiPietro is still being paid $1.5 annually through 2029. Connolly cites DiPietro getting punched in the jaw by Penguins backup goalie Brent Johnson in 2011 as a particularly low moment for the franchise.

  • The team has cycled through 14 different coaches (plus some repeats) since it last won a Cup in 1983. When the Islanders made it to the Eastern Conference finals this summer, it was for the first time since 1993; the 27-year final four drought was the longest of any NHL franchise

“The fan base is passionate and always talks about the wins back in the ’80s, the teams, the guys that have won the Cups there,” said center Brock Nelson, one of the team’s longest-tenured players. “You can see how much that means to them, to the community. Those guys are heroes. Everybody in the room now is striving to be a part of history like that, and to write our own little chapter.”

The current Islanders have plenty of reason to sulk if they wanted. Two years ago, their captain, John Tavares, spurned them in free agency to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs — a childhood dream of his, punctuated by the now-famous photo of him sleeping in Leafs pajamas. The Isles are the only NHL team without a singular home arena, commuting between the historic but outdated Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center in Brooklyn — a beautiful, shiny arena that unfortunately is not quite fit for hockey, nor is it convenient for the fan base — for the past two seasons, often without a set schedule.

This past summer, the Islanders played little brother to their New York City-area rivals yet again. Despite being the only team of the three to make the playoffs last season, the Isles paled in media coverage to the Rangers (who made a splash signing Artemi Panarin in free agency) and Devils (who selected No. 1 overall in the draft, traded for P.K. Subban and committed to going all-in for Taylor Hall‘s last year).

The Islanders observed, and absorbed it. They returned largely the same roster, and stormed out to a franchise-record 17-game point streak. “At times, absolutely we consider ourselves an underdog,” captain Anders Lee told ESPN in November, during the streak, as his team still wasn’t commanding enough league-wide attention. “Last year, that was a big part of our identity. This year, we’re coming back with a very similar team but still have a lot to prove. It’s hard to really come in and demand that attention. You demand respect by the way you play — if you win, how your season goes — but we haven’t accomplished our goals just yet. And until we do that, we’re going to have to keep proving everyone wrong.”

Many credit the Islanders’ current upward trajectory to their current leadership regime, which not coincidentally, also bears a chip on its shoulder.

Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello took over in 2018 after being pushed out from Toronto as the team wanted a fresher (much younger) leader in Kyle Dubas. Trotz, meanwhile, joined the team just weeks after leading the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup — because Washington didn’t think he was worthy of a contract he could get on the open market.

“With everyone that came in, the level was raised a bit more,” Nelson said. Added Trotz: “There is a standard we hold each other up to. I think it’s real key when there’s a standard or culture you live by, not that there was a bad culture before, but there is a level we want to achieve.”

The 77-year-old Lamoriello is notorious for running a tight ship; players are banned from growing facial hair during the season, and use of the word “professionalism” is effusive around the organization. “I used to be able to do whatever I wanted,” Connolly says. “I literally had a lanyard, could walk in, do whatever I wanted. My access has been totally stripped. [Since Lamoriello came] I now have to call like three weeks in advance, ‘Hey, can I come to the game?’ But as long as they win, everyone’s on board for it. Everyone is buying in. And obviously I don’t mind that.”

Look no further than one of the Islanders’ biggest moves this season: acquiring third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the trade deadline, and subsequently extending him for six years. Pageau, who leads all forwards with a plus-10 rating in the playoffs, has quickly become a favorite inside and outside the team because he bought into the team’s culture.

“He was traded in February, scored in his first game, had a big fight against Jacob Trouba of the Rangers, immediately endeared himself to the team and the fans,” Mleczko says. “But for them, a lot of it is how tightly they adhere to Barry Trotz’s system. Because it is a very structured system, especially defensively. If you go south of the red line, it is structured, it is predictable — that’s his big thing, he wants it to be predictable — and everybody plays their role.”

And that’s perhaps why the Islanders get knocked for not being exciting. They roll out four lines evenly. They have not one, but two capable goaltenders. Their defensemen never stand out for doing something flashy, but also rarely get caught doing something wrong. They do the small things right. While no forward has eye-popping stats this summer, the Isles have five players with 12 to 17 points.

“Any system you put in, if you’re going to do it right, you have to put the work in. It’s just getting everyone on the same page,” says winger Jordan Eberle. “There’s no unpredictability in our game. When we’re playing at our best, everyone knows what they’re supposed to do and where they’re supposed to be. It’s just the sign of a good team.”

And of course, they still keep things tight, allowing only 2.28 goals per game — a number that ballooned after the 8-2 blowout in Game 1 against the Lightning.

Adds Connolly: “It drives me crazy when people call this team boring. I’m not comparing the New York Islanders to Floyd Mayweather, but people would always say that about him too. ‘Oh, he’s boring, he never gets punched in the face.’ What, he’s boring because he won’t let you punch him in the face 200 times? That’s the whole idea!”

Suddenly, things are coming into place for the Islanders. They’ll face a cap crunch this summer, especially with Barzal due for a mega contract, but they finally convinced their top prospect, goalie Ilya Sorokin, to come over from Russia. Construction is underway for a new permanent home in Elmont, New York; UBS Arena is part of a $1.5 billion project that developer Tim Leiweke says is richly deserved.

“If you look at a franchise where fans have been put through a more difficult process, there aren’t many that compare to the Islanders,” says Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, which is overseeing the project. “It’s been one of the longest struggles for a sports team in this country to try to find predictability and try to find a place that they can call home. It’s shocking, because if you take a step back, there are 10 million people who live in Long Island. It’s the fourth-largest city in the United States — if it was its own city. And yet, it never had comfort, it never had predictability, and the fans always had to deal with great uncertainty.”

Perhaps it’s fitting that the rebirth of the Islanders could begin here in Edmonton. It’s the team’s first playoff series in the city since losing the Stanley Cup Final to the Oilers in 1984 — which ended the Isles’ dynasty and began the Oilers’.

The Islanders lost Game 1 against the Lightning after getting a tough shake on the schedule — the game directly followed an emotional Game 7, then a travel day, with little time to recover. In Game 2, the Isles outplayed the Lightning and restored their typical defensive structure, but had a brief lapse in the final 30 seconds as Nikita Kucherov scored a buzzer-beater. They’re down, but refuse to be counted out.

“I think we’re getting used to whatever you throw at us, we’ll just deal with it,” Trotz says. “This is a resilient group. There are no excuses.”



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