Each moment has the potential to become a game-changing event in the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, and all teams are searching for an opportunity to build momentum. Every shift gets magnified, every faceoff becomes more critical. Special teams can become an enormous sense of confidence, or have a negative impact on a team that grows with each failed opportunity.
In Game 1 of the Islanders' first-round series against the Penguins, New York managed emotions and overcame two critical moments which could have gotten the best of even the mentally toughest teams.
Tom Kuhnhackl lit the lamp just 33 seconds into the game and sent the Nassau Coliseum crowd into a frenzy. However, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan challenged for offside and the goal was disallowed.
But then, Jordan Eberle found the back of the net just 67 seconds later to help the Islanders capture momentum and benefit from a quick start.
"I think in the playoffs, momentum is everything," Islanders defenseman Nick Leddy said after scoring a third-period goal. "The team that has it, normally comes out with a win. When you have it, you need to keep it."
The Islanders needed to find another gear after failing to close out the Penguins in regulation when Justin Schultz knotted the game at three apiece with 1:29 remaining.
Josh Bailey hit the post with five seconds left in the third period, but then finished the job in OT to propel his team to a 1-0 series lead.
"That's playoff hockey," Bailey said. "We had to battle a bit of adversity, shake that (late goal) off and ultimately found a way to get a win. Especially in the playoffs you are going to experience those things, it's all about how you respond."
While those two moments properly define the mental toughness team president Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz have helped instill with the Islanders since arriving this past summer, New York also turned a regular-season weakness into a postseason strength, at least for the opening game.
Special teams often serve as momentum boosters during a game, and even while possessing the 29th-ranked power play during the regular season, the Islanders understand the importance during postseason play.
"You are not going to score every time you're on the power play, but you want to create some momentum," Eberle, who tallied on the man-advantage in the first period, said.
"The power play has been a bit of a weak spot this year. You look at where we finished, bottom couple teams in the league. Get one early on in the first, and generate some chances on the other one. If we can continue its going to be a huge upside in the playoffs."
The turnaround of the power play in Game 1 was not only vital to the Islanders' win, it bodes well for the team's mentality as it heads into Game 2 on Friday, and as the series flips to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.
"Confidence keeps growing the more you keep going," Leddy added. "At the end of the day, it's a good start and we need to keep going."