Barry Trotz’s championship pedigree and steady hand have shown Islanders the way

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TAMPA — When Barry Trotz coached Justin Williams in Washington, the three-time Stanley Cup winning winger told a story about how he handled Game 7 pressure with the L.A. Kings.

“They were in a Game 7. He was just sitting there [in the pre-game locker room] smiling, and everybody was wondering what he was smiling at,” Trotz recalled Friday morning. “And he says, ‘I’m just really gonna enjoy celebrating with you guys after.’

“He didn’t get small in the moment,” Trotz said of Williams. “He just didn’t let it bother him, that’s all.”

Trotz now is that leader, that calming influence for this year’s Islanders, who stood one win away Friday night at the Lightning’s Amalie Arena from the Isles’ first Cup Final berth since 1984.

Defenseman Nick Leddy is the only regular in the Islanders’ lineup with a Stanley Cup ring. But Trotz has a ring and a steady demeanor behind the bench to complement that pedigree.

“He’s got a presence about him,” forward Travis Zajac said of Trotz. “The way he talks, the way he prepares us for games, you feel really confident in him and the decisions he makes. He’s won before. He’s a veteran coach. He knows how to adapt to different situations, and he’s got us on the right track.”

Trotz, whose 877 career regular season wins rank third all-time in NHL history, left Washington in 2018 after leading the Capitals to their franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup championship.

He came to Long Island and took on a new challenge, rather than running it back with a title team. The Islanders’ glory days were long behind them.

They’ve bounced around home arenas from Brooklyn to Uniondale, and last year they played in a bubble through a pandemic.

But Trotz has taken them to two consecutive conference finals appearances now. And on Friday night, he was on the verge of lifting them into a Cup Final that would have the Islanders hosting Game 1 at Nassau Coliseum against the lower-seeded Montreal Canadiens.

Andy Greene and Zajac both went to the Final in 2012 with the Devils, but they fell to Williams’ Kings and never went back with that same Devils team. So they knew how special it was to have the opportunity in front of them on Friday night.

“You have to really make sure you enjoy these moments because you never know,” Greene said Friday morning. “After 2012 you think you’ll make it back there, but you never know what’s gonna happen.”

Trotz knows as well as anyone that these opportunities don’t come along often. He coached 15 seasons in Nashville and 18 NHL seasons total before his 2017-18 Capitals won it all.

Now he’s in his third conference finals series in four years, with a chance to reach the Cup Final for the second time in four seasons with two different teams.

Trotz won’t hide the pressure or the magnitude of the moment from his players. Listen to him describe what it was like winning the Cup in Washington, for example:

“Every emotion that a human person can have comes out when you get to the top of the mountain,” Trotz said Friday. “It starts out as a dream and then it becomes a reality.”

But Trotz tempers his honesty with the humility of a coach who had to learn how to evolve and adapt himself, too.

“I think you learn as a coach through experiences over time,” Trotz said. “As a young coach I wanted to control everybody and everything. What experience has allowed me to do is to filter out what’s important.

“And with experience you trust good people,” he added. “You trust your staff, you trust your players. And that’s I think the biggest thing. When I was young I wanted to control more of that because I felt like maybe it wasn’t gonna get done.”

The Islanders got it done in Game 6 at Nassau Coliseum to stay alive, and on Friday, they stormed into the Lightning’s home arena not looking to rise to the occasion as much as to heed their calm coach’s advice on how to handle the pressure.

“Embrace it,” Trotz said.

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