As Islanders get reinforcements back from COVID list, 'playoffs start now'

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The reality for the Islanders is that they currently reside in the basement of the Metropolitan Division with 12 points, and have a lot of work to do in order to get back into playoff contention and back up the preseason hype as a Stanley Cup contender.

Those harsh realities come with the realization that the Islanders have faced a lot of adversity so far this season with a season-opening 13-game road trip, significant injuries to defenseman Ryan Pulock and forward Brock Nelson and a COVID-19 outbreak that took eight players out of the lineup.

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Riding an eight-game losing streak, the reality is that the Islanders finally feel good about themselves.

After two games were postponed because of the COVID outbreak, the Islanders returned to practice on Wednesday, and they will resume their schedule on Thursday night when they host the San Jose Sharks at UBS Arena.

For the Islanders, it’s back to business, and they have some catching up to do.

“We’ve dug ourselves a hole,” said head coach Barry Trotz. “Our playoffs start now. We’re not going to see the playoffs unless we’re digging in right now. I expect them to dig in and we will.”

There were good vibes at the team’s Northwell Health Ice Center practice facility in East Meadow for practice on Wednesday, as the team welcomed back captain Anders Lee, defensemen Adam Pelech and Andy Greene along with Ross Johnston from the COVID list as they joined forward Josh Bailey, who returned to the team just before the shutdown.

Lee and Bailey are both expected to return to the lineup on Thursday night against the Sharks and they will get to play a game at the Islanders’ new home UBS Arena for the first time.

“I’m looking forward to [Thursday night],” said Bailey, the longest tenured Islander. “It’s an exciting time, especially for all of us guys who haven’t played in that arena yet.  I’m really looking forward to it.”

“All good now,” said Lee, who tested positive two days before the November 20th UBS Arena opener.  “Ready to roll. Now we’re ready to get back at it and we are looking forward to getting in the building [Thursday] night.”

And that’s when the Islanders hope to begin the process of climbing up the ladder.

Entering play on Thursday night, the Islanders trail the seventh-place Philadelphia Flyers by eight points in the Metropolitan Division and they are 13 points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the second Eastern Conference Wild Card spot.

It appears to be a tough task for the Islanders, but their focus is squarely on San Jose and getting back to that winning feeling.

“The first step is let’s get our team at least trending in the right way,” said Trotz. “You’re not going to get to the top of the mountain right away so we have to start with one step. We’ve dug ourselves a huge hole.  It doesn’t mean we can’t dig ourselves out of it but it’s a huge hole right now.”

The Islanders’ problems began long before the COVID outbreak.

They lost their first two games of the season before going on a seven-game unbeaten streak. Along the way, Pulock went down with a lower body injury, the COVID outbreak began and then forward Brock Nelson went down with an injury. On Wednesday, the process of getting the gang back together began and now the team is waiting for the return of forwards Casey Cizikas and Kieffer Bellows as well as defenseman Zdeno Chara.

After back-to-back trips to the NHL’s final four, expectations were high coming into this season and team is not ready to throw in the towel.

“There’s a lot of confident in our group about who we are and who we should be on the ice,” said Lee.  “We’re going to take it day by day and game by game and not get ahead of ourselves and looking forward to this challenge. It’s going to be difficult to get out of but nothing that’s insurmountable or anything like that. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played and our best hockey is in front of us.”

Most of the team knows what it’s like to win a lot of hockey games, as they were a part of playoff success the Islanders have enjoyed over the last few years. They have experienced just about everything when it comes to getting on a good streak and bouncing back from adversity. There isn’t an instruction manual on how to deal with what the Islanders have experienced this season, but it’s a veteran group that has, for the most part, found a way to get the job done.

“If you have any backbone, you’re going to dig in and this group has backbone,” said Trotz.  I expect them to dig in.”

And thanks to the return of some key players, the Islanders now have most of their shovels back to start digging on Thursday night.