For the eighth time in their glorious 13-year history, the New York Islanders have dropped the first two games of a playoff series. Taking heed of a past performance that has seen them rebound in such circumstances four times to win, neither the Islanders nor the Philadelphia Flyers will concede verbally that Philadelphia's current 2-0 edge is overwhelming.
"When you're down, it's never easy and because it's Philly, it's no easier," said Islanders center Bryan Trottier. "They're playing pretty well and I give them full marks. There are certain things we're not doing, but we're the Islanders. You never know."
"Our forwards are playing well and we're definitely on a roll," said Flyers defenseman Brad McCrimmon. "But I'm not downgrading the Islanders. They've made the finals five times in a row, so obviously they're doing something right. The big thing is, they're the Islanders."
The Islanders' mystique, which contributed to their rally from a 2-0 deficit to victory over Washington in the best-of-five Patrick Division semifinals, is the one thing that keeps observers from proclaiming blowout in the best-of-seven divisional final that resumes here Tuesday night.
If ever a team looked like a winner, it is Philadelphia. The Flyers have won 10 straight games and 21 of their last 22. They have posted 18 victories in a row against Patrick Division opponents, including five over the Islanders.
More important, the name Bill Smith that strikes terror into the hearts of so many NHL shooters has no special significance for the Flyers.
A 5-2 loser in game two Sunday night, Smith owns a 4-4 playoff record against Philadelphia and a mediocre 8-21-6 regular-season mark. In the Spectrum, Smith is winless in 11 starts dating back to the Islanders' 1980 triumph in the Stanley Cup final.
The hot goaltender in this series has been the Flyers' Pelle Lindbergh. He blanked the Islanders in the opener and has stopped 48 of 50 shots.
Lindbergh's performance prompted Flyer Brian Propp to comment, in what on another night might have been a reference to Smith, "When you're making good shots and the goalie is stopping them, it tends to frustrate you after a while. Pelle has been so great, it has to be frustrating to them."
Although the Flyers have been careful to say nothing that might rouse the Islanders to greater effort, they have noted that New York is not playing with its usual intensity.
"They're never out until the series is over," said defenseman Brad Marsh. "It might be the fourth game, the sixth game or the eighth game, but they're never out of it. I don't know if they've been playing a little tired, but I do know that any team that plays Washington five games in a row is bound to be tired."
"We had a little extra rest and it's helped us," Propp said. "The Islanders still play really sound hockey and we have to play our very best to beat them. We've been getting the lead and that makes a big difference."
The Flyers' current run of success with the NHL's youngest team has been a source of amazement to many, including some of the Flyers themselves.
"We're playing pretty poised hockey," Propp said. "We're gaining experience and we're not showing inexperience. The big test will be on the Island. We have to keep playing the way we are, forechecking and keeping the pressure on them. Once we let them come at us, they'll get their confidence back."
"Everybody keeps talking about our youth, but they're the ones who helped us through the regular season and I don't see any reason why they shouldn't get us all the way through the playoffs," said Tim Kerr, who has seven goals in five playoff games.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Flyers' domination in the first two games is that they have done it without center Dave Poulin, the team captain and one of the NHL's best defensive forwards, who is nursing a sprained left knee.
Ron Sutter, who struggled during the regular season, has been a standout against the Islanders, with his checking a major factor in Trottier's current pointless state.
"The key has been the first period," Sutter said. "If you can get the jump on the Islanders, it gives you an extra incentive to keep going. You never know with Billy Smith. He can be very hot one night and cold the next."
If the Islanders are to produce yet another dramatic comeback, Smith had better be scorching. The way this series looks, the Islanders might need one of their patented miracles just to force a fifth game.