PITTSBURGH — One of the offshoots of playing in the NHL is that you spend a lot of time in the air. Like, a lot.
If you’re the Islanders, the odometer reads at an estimated 35,092 miles for the 2022-23 season, according to one Redditor who thought to calculate it for every team.
This ranks toward the bottom of the league, thanks to some non-flying road trips to play the Rangers and Devils, plus short flights to Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C. and Buffalo. Still, that’s a lot of miles.
We’re not telling you this to garner sympathy for NHL players. Teams fly private, which comes with a host of perks. One of the most important might be the two big tables near the front of the plane.
For the Islanders, that’s where card games go on from takeoff until landing.
“Well, you put a bunch of professional athletes at a table together that are all friends,” Matt Martin said, “and it gets competitive pretty quick.”
The game depends on the players, but at the main table, it tends to be euchre, seven up and on occasion, poker.
For the uninitiated, euchre and seven up are trump games. Euchre is largely played in Canada and Michigan, with four players split up into partnerships. The deck is nines through aces, with the twist being that the jacks of trump color (i.e., the jacks of clubs and spades if trump is one of the two suits) are the highest cards.
Seven up is also a trump game, but without partners, and with a full deck of cards along with a few other twists.
“Typically we have seven [players],” Josh Bailey said. “It’s two tables on the plane, and [seven up] kinda took over in the bubble. A lot of guys would play there, so we’d have some pretty big games.”
Given that the Islanders had two months of near isolation in Toronto and Edmonton during the summer of 2020, where they beat the Panthers, Capitals and Flyers before falling to the Lightning in the conference finals, it only makes sense they turned to the same bonding tool used by college kids and summer campers the world over.
Of course, it’s not as if they weren’t playing cards before then. Games are a staple across not just the NHL but pro sports. Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton infamously brought guns into the Washington Wizards’ locker room in 2009 after a disastrous hand of bourré.
While the Islanders do play for money, these games are better spirited. Other groups of players prefer different games — Kyle Palmieri, Zach Parise and Brock Nelson have a running match of cribbage, and Hudson Fasching, Simon Holmstrom, Sebastian Aho and Parker Wotherspoon play Super Tock, a board game Fasching describes as similar to Sorry!
It is just as competitive as you would expect.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Parise said. “I’m number one, the number one seed right now. … You can ask them. Go ask them who’s the number one seed.”
“Zach right now is at the top, yeah,” Nelson admitted. “Sometimes his integrity gets put into question with some mispegging and questionable counting.”
We can’t speak to the veracity of those accusations, but the game will go on.
“For me, we grew up playing cards,” Bailey said. “It was part of our family almost. Coming here it took me a little while to get in the game. You wait your turn — it was Hold ‘Em back then. I would come in occasionally. After a couple years, I was a full-timer.”
Playoff odds and ends
Just how important was the win over the Sabres on Tuesday?
Thanks to MoneyPuck, we can put a number on it. The swing in the Islanders’ playoff odds between a regulation win or loss was nearly 20 percent, according to the analytics website.
The Islanders’ odds jumped to 52.6 percent with the 3-2 victory. A regulation loss would have dropped them to 33.4 percent.
Likewise, the swing between a regulation win or loss Thursday night in Pittsburgh is 18.3 percent. A regulation win gets them to 61.4 percent — with a 21.9 percent shot of taking the first wild-card spot. A loss would see their odds dip to 43.1 percent.
Along with the season’s final game against the Sabres, which will be played March 25, it’s possible this is the biggest game left on the schedule.
Soon to change
For much of the season, Lane Lambert has tightened his bench late in games.
Once Jean-Gabriel Pageau returns to the lineup — which could be soon, after Pageau returned to practice on Monday — the door will be open for that to change.
It’s not entirely clear what the lineup will look like with Pageau. The main question is whether Parise will stick on the second line or go back to playing with Pageau, which he did for most of the season.
But the current third line of Martin, Fasching and Casey Cizikas has played too well to be benched late in games. It was Cizikas and Fasching — with Bailey and Martin each getting time on the left wing — who made the difference on Tuesday.
Once Pageau is back, that will become the fourth line, and Lambert should be able to play 12 forwards through 60 minutes.
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