They say, in most cases, you almost have to suffer through hardship to finally earn success, and that the most painful lessons are often the most fruitful. In the case of the New York Islanders, that is what they look to after a heartbreaking 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final.
The always terrific Eric Hornick noted last night that the Lightning won a series that included four games – 2, 3, 5, and 6 – where they led for a total of 8.8 seconds. That’s how close the Islanders are. Brock Nelson had a shorthanded breakaway in overtime last night, and I’m sure if given a second chance, goes backhand. That’s how close the Islanders are. A failed power play, which let them down all tournament, had a chance to win after that and failed miserably. That’s how close the Islanders are.
This isn’t a team in a rebuild. Been there, done that. This isn’t a team that needs many pieces to be competitive for the foreseeable future. In fact, I’d argue that we still have not seen the best of what the Islanders’ young stable of talent has to offer. Oliver Wahlstrom, Keiffer Bellows, Noah Dobson, and Ilya Sorokin are waiting in the wings for their chance to make their mark.
They did not waver when Casey Cizikas left the bubble with a detached retina that required surgery. They did not waver when Tom Kuhnhackl preceded him with a shoulder issue. They did not flinch when top defenseman Adam Pelech, so good this postseason, could not go in Game 6, after fracturing his wrist early in Game 5. The fact Pelech played the rest of that double overtime game with the injury shows how much of a warrior he is, and the sacrifice required at this time of year.
Bounced the Florida Panthers. Destroyed the Washington Capitals. Outlasted the Philadelphia Flyers with a dominant performance in Game 7. Took the Lightning, a perennial Stanley Cup contender, deep into the conference final. Remember, the Islanders were already playing in their fourth round and, at times late in the series with Tampa, they certainly looked it. But, in true Barry Trotz fashion, they gutted it out, pushing harder until their bodies couldn’t push anymore.
Sure, you could take the ‘glass half-empty’ approach and question Jordan Eberle’s goal scoring drought, Anthony Beauvillier seemingly wearing down as the tournament progressed, Nick Leddy and his uneven play, Devon Toews’ too, and even Mathew Barzal’s performance in OT of Game 6, when he turned the puck over three times on the power play and failed to pick up Anthony Cirelli on the game winner. But, that’s fool's gold. The positives are a longer list and more worthwhile.
Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey were fantastic, Anders Lee led by example every game, JG Pageau was as advertised, and the fourth liners were their usual selves. Pelech, Ryan Pulock (save for a couple of rough games), Andy Greene, Johnny Boychuk, Semyon Varlamov, and Thomas Greiss…the New York Islanders made their announcement to the league that under Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky’s ownership and Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz’s leadership, they are no longer the carpet, but the one who steps on it. And they deserve to be.
“Pride, character, resiliency. It’s a special group in that room and until that last minute, we believed in each other, what we were doing, and the road we were on. Obviously we came up short, but there’s a huge sense of pride in every one of those guys in our room,” Lee said after the disappointing loss.
Trotz took it a step further in describing the team he has led over two significant steps in the right direction.
“This is one of the most resilient teams I've coached, and I've coached for a long time. I'm really proud of what we’ve done and the strides we’ve made, but we’re obviously very disappointed because this group felt it could represent the East and hopefully play for the Stanley Cup.”
One day, Barry, one day.
In the upcoming weeks, we get to move forward with off-season planning. Who will stay, who will go, what moves might be in the pipeline for the general manager? When will the 2021 season even begin, and under what conditions?
For now, we sit back and revel in the fact that the Islanders, for the first time in a long time, and in the most needed year, gave us exactly what we needed.
Follow Andy Graziano on Twitter: @AndyGraz_WFAN