They took the semifinals and the defending champs to the limit, to Game 7, to the final frenzied minute, in which the Islanders swarmed around and in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s net, desperately looking for the puck and the bounce that could extend their magic carpet ride into one more overtime.
But the puck never came, neither did the bounce, nor did the goal. For the second straight season, a loss in the semifinals. For the second straight season, a loss to the Lightning. For the second straight year, heartache on the Island.
It was 1-0 in this Game 7, perhaps the cruelest score of all, which was manufactured in the cruelest way imaginable. Because it was a Yanni Gourde shorthanded goal in the second minute of the second period that did the Islanders dirty, Tampa Bay exploiting their one significant weakness.
That weakness? The Islanders’ power play, which went 1-for-17 in the series and thus finished the seven-game joust no more than even for its 24:15 of work. It always finds you, doesn’t it?
Of course, the Islanders should be proud of themselves. Of course this was an admirable team that squeezed just about everything it had out of the tube. The Islanders left it all on the ice, and when they left the handshake line after being on the wrong side of it again, they were emotionally spent, perhaps even temporarily destroyed.
“It sucks getting back to this point and falling short again,” said a tearful 24-year-old Mathew Barzal, who made note of veterans such as Josh Bailey and Andy Greene in describing his pain. “You know, I’ve got a few more years, but you want to win for those guys and it hurts seeing those guys in the locker room. That’s how close we are.”
The unity, the single-minded purpose, the structure, the commitment to the logo on the front of the jersey and not the nameplate on the back, the work ethic, these are attributes with which the Islanders of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz are saturated. In this era, as in any era, those go far.
But those qualities — plus superb goaltending from Semyon Varlamov — could not get the Islanders to the Stanley Cup Final. They could not propel them all the way.
Over the past two years, the Islanders have won playoff rounds against four teams. They defeated the Capitals and Flyers last year under the bubble in Toronto. They defeated the Penguins and Bruins this spring.
But they could not get by the Lightning.
Six games last year.
Seven games this year.
Another run by the Islanders, who had last reached the NHL’s final four in consecutive years in 1983 and 1984. Another run that fell short, for the second time in two years going down to the outfit that has become the Islanders’ white whale.
Herb Brooks’ Smurfs of the early 1980s could not get through the dynastic Islanders. The original Jets of the mid-to-late 1980s could not get through the dynastic Oilers. These Islanders cannot get through the championship Lightning.
And this is where the Islanders’ struggles to score goals becomes determinative. They can beat lesser teams and they can score against lesser goaltenders. But against the Lightning — the champs who will begin their defense of the crown against Montreal starting on Monday — their lack of genuine finishers and elite playmakers finish them.
The Islanders could only cobble together 15 shots at even-strength in this one. There was only one Barzal late, No. 13 on the ice for 4:55 of the final 6:43. There were two shots from Nelson, two from Anthony Beauvillier, one from Bailey, none from Jordan Eberle, none from Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
The teams have hooked up 13 times in the postseason the past two years. The Islanders have scored three or more goals just three times. They went 3-0 in those games. But they were limited to two goals or fewer in the other 10 games, winning just two of them.
“We’re built a little differently, they’ve obviously got some elite goal-scorers, we were missing Anders Lee in this and I think he would have been a huge factor in this series around the net and all,” Trotz said, referring to the captain and first-line winger who went down for the count with a knee injury in March. “They’ve got all the pieces, frankly, an all-star goalie, a deep defense.
“They’re a fantastic team and Coop [Jon Cooper] does a great job coaching them. That’s why they’re Stanley Cup champions. You need a break here and there to get by this team. But we’re chipping away at it.”
The Islanders are not urchins anymore. This is no longer the NHL’s Shipwreck Franchise. But there is work to be done to end the Stanley Cup drought that has reached 38 years. Trotz and the Islanders still must bridge the biggest gap in sports.
From contenders to champions.
And the Tampa Bay Lightning will still be in the way.