They’ve become accustomed to it now, and why wouldn’t the Islanders after having played 13 games under the antiseptic bubble in Toronto before taking the ice for Tuesday’s potential elimination Game 5 of the second round against the Flyers?
Anders Lee almost doesn’t notice anymore.
“It is our new normal a little bit,” the captain said via Zoom, hours before the match. “I think the first few games, for sure, were an adjustment, even the sightlines and stuff like that. But I think everyone went through that and now I guess we’re pretty used to it.
“Every game feels more and more like, you know, the one before it and that normal. You just get used to it really.”
One more victory would guarantee a ticket out of the Eastern bubble, with both conference finals scheduled to be played under the western bubble in Edmonton. So there will be bus rides and a flight if the Islanders can close out the Flyers, though it is possible the Eastern finals will commence in Toronto before the cross-country trek, with the Lightning having received their invite to the final four by eliminating Boston in five on Monday.
(The NHL has wanted to accelerate the schedule to limit the amount of time in the bubble as much as possible. The less time, the less time for something to go wrong throughout an event in which essentially everything has gone right. That’s why the league might start the Eastern finals before the Western semis conclude. Vegas was up on Vancouver 3-1 with Game 5 set for Tuesday, while Dallas held a 3-2 lead on Colorado before Game 6 on Wednesday.)
Of course, there will also be bus rides and flights if the Islanders conspire to lose three straight to Philadelphia, but those roads will lead to home. Players have been away from their homes and their families for more than five weeks, they are itching to get back, but that can wait for, oh, nine more victories.
“All of us here miss our families, our kids, our wives at home, our support systems at home, our moms and dads,” said Lee, whose wife, Grace, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a girl named Ruby, in March. “Everyone has been so strong for us, taking care of all the little things, day-to-day.
“They give us the opportunity to be here in the bubble, chasing our dreams down and kind of managing everything from the kids to the house to all those things. Our support system has been phenomenal. I know as a group that we can’t thank them enough for that.
“We’re doing our best here to make our time away from our families worth it.”
It is impossible to measure the impact of the bubble on the outcomes of games or the tournament. Of the 17 series that have been completed, including the eight qualifying-round matchups, only four teams won a game while facing elimination, and none more than one. Only one series has gone the distance. That was the best-of-five qualifier in which Columbus took out Toronto. Perhaps the strain became more than the trailing teams could bear, just like it became too much for Johnny Ringo when Doc Holliday showed up at that crossing.
“There is more of a mental strain in the bubble than normal,” Barry Trotz said. “It’s not normal. It’s not normal. It’s the reality of 2020 and I think we’ve accepted that. So I think we’re OK with it. We just focus on one game. Every round, we’ve just focused on the next game.”
Ah, the games. Those, Trotz indicated, most certainly have been impacted by the atmosphere, or lack thereof, in which the matches have been played.
“It’s very quiet. Very quiet,” the coach said. “Home-ice advantage is just the last change right now. It’s not … some rinks are a little more intimidating, ours [at the Coliseum] being one of them.
“The momentum, you can carry it a little longer. Your momentum and all that has to come from your bench. And it’s a lot quieter. You watch it on TV and it sounds like it’s loud but it’s much quieter in the rink, actually.
“The NHL has done an excellent job and for TV, it’s outstanding,” Trotz said. “But in the rink, you think about it, there are probably 80 or 90 people in an arena that has close to 20,000 capacity, so even walking down the hallways you don’t see anybody and you feel you’re in an empty building a lot just because of the enormous size of the venue.
“So all your motivation and all your focus comes from one thing, and that’s the group that’s in that room.”
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