Michael Peca sat on the Islanders’ bench, watching the time tick down and the goals go in — six goals, that is.
After taking the opening faceoff and playing the first 27 seconds in what was meant as a motivational tactic, Peca — then the Islanders’ captain, but suffering from injuries — sat for the next 59:33 in misery.
It was Nov. 2, 2002, and the Islanders were in the midst of a stretch as bad as the one in which the team finds itself now. After that 6-1 loss to the Blues, Islanders goaltender Chris Osgood told reporters, “This probably is the most embarrassing game I played in my career.”
Peca remembers thinking that the plan for him to play just one shift would change and he would play a normal load of minutes. Instead, he sat. And watched. And stewed.
“In hindsight for me, even if it were to work — even if it would’ve created an emotional spark — and we won the game, I would’ve still been miserable,” Peca told The Post, “because I sat on the bench for 59 ¹/₂ minutes of the game.”
Like this year’s Islanders, the 2002-03 team started terribly, earning just 11 points in their first 17 games. Like this year’s Islanders, they were missing key pieces at the start, in particular Peca, who was recovering from shoulder and knee injuries.
The Islanders recovered that season to make the playoffs, albeit with 83 points — a number that would be unlikely to get them in this season. They are, according to Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to make the playoffs with 12 or fewer points after 17 games, which is where this season’s Islanders stood before their overtime loss to the Sharks on Thursday. The franchise has pulled off such a recovery three times in its history, also doing so in 1989-90 and 1993-94.
This year’s Islanders got some of their key players back against the Sharks, when Anders Lee, Adam Pelech, Josh Bailey and Andy Greene returned to the lineup.
The urgency is palpable.
“No one here is trying to lose,” coach Barry Trotz said prior to the game Thursday. “We feel the pressure to try to win. And sometimes, it’s not necessarily the X’s and O’s part that can get you out of it, it’s more the mental part.”
The mental part was what Peca described as key to the turnaround nearly 20 years ago. After his return, in a loss to the Bruins, the Islanders earned points in five straight games. By the New Year, they were .500.
Looking back, Peca talked of compiling little victories — win this shift, win that period — that added up.
“You have a bad start, you’re kind of behind the eight-ball with points and games left,” Peca said. “If you start thinking of the result, then you’re not focused on what you have to do to start winning in the first place. I think if you get into a seven-game series, you can’t worry about, oh my god we gotta win four games.
“You try to build off history and memory. Start with one step, then the next step and before you know it, you’re running full speed and that’s how we got out of it.”
Though Peca recalled then-coach Peter Laviolette shaking up the lines, it wasn’t a system change or a single moment that got the team back on track. It was merely getting healthy and finding a mentality that worked.
In other words, a formula that would fit this season’s team, which has played without as many as 10 of its regulars during the current eight-game losing streak.
“I was a little bit more fresh with my perspective on when I came back,” Peca said. “Maybe that’s something that helped. I wasn’t getting discouraged or I was a little bit more positive and upbeat than maybe some of the other guys having gone through that.”
When teams are losing, players may still outwardly believe they can turn it around, but impatience and frustration can build. Getting a player or two back healthy, particularly a captain, can change that.
“One person may not influence the other 19 in the locker room,” Peca said. “But you influence one or two, those two may influence two or three more and then those two or three more influence two or three more.”
Small building blocks, stacked on top of each other. That’s what worked for the Islanders then. It could be the formula now, starting with the team’s first point in nine games on Thursday night.
“How we’ve played, I think tonight was an indication that we’re going in the right direction,” Lee said after the game. “Just gotta find a way to get that extra point at the end there.”
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