By Lenn Robbins
There’s a reason hockey’s overtime is known as sudden death. The agony of losing is vastly more devastating than the joy of winning. The Islanders are the latest team to experience this pain.
Their magnificent playoff run – one no one saw coming except perhaps the players in that locker room – came to a tortuous end Thursday night in Rogers Place in Edmonton. Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli clipped a shot off the post that slipped behind Semyon Varlamov and inched its way along the goal line until it brushed the goalie’s left skate and cross the line between agony and ecstasy.
That was it. The season was over. For some, their career in white, blue and orange over.
The 2-1 OT loss gave the Tampa Bay Lightning a 4-2 series victory, propelling them into the Stanley Cup Finals against Dallas Stars. The last embers of a blazing playoff run that saw them advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1993 suddenly doused.
“Until that very last minute, every single one of us believed in each other and what we were doing and the road we were on,” said captain Anders Lee. “Obviously we came up short, but there’s just a huge sense of pride right now in every single one of those guys in our room, everyone involved.”
These Islanders have every reason to be proud. They went winless in their last seven games of the regular season and in 11-of-13 before the pandemic closed down sports. They arrived in Toronto and something magical happened. The Islanders simply wouldn’t break.
They took out the No.3 seed Washington Capitals and then the No.1 seed Philadelphia Flyers. The Lightning were playoff tested and ridiculously talented. They have more snipers than a Navy Seals training center.
The Islanders fell behind the Lightning 2-0 and 3-1 and could have excepted their fate. But, no, when a team has galvanized into an unrelenting force, there’s a belief that anything can happen. It almost did.
The Islanders won Game 5 in double overtime. They took the Lightning into OT in Game 6 and almost forced a Game 7, but Andrei Vasilevskiy stoned Brock Nelson on a breakaway at 2:24 of overtime. Some 10 minutes later the Islanders would be shaking hands with the Lightning, their season over.
“I had a high belief right through this whole thing,” Trotz said. “When Brock stole that puck, I thought it was only fitting. I thought it would be our time to get to Game 7. Unfortunately, their goaltender, he’s good.”
So are the Islanders, and they can get better. We saw the emergence of Matt Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier, the scoring of Nelson, the passing of Josh Bailey, and Varlamov was exceptional, especially in Game 5 and 6.
The Islanders will move into a new facility, USB Arena, a built-for-hockey temple. Lou Lamoriello, who built winners wherever he went, won the 2020 Jim Gregory GM of the Year Award. And Trotz took the Islanders another round deeper into the playoffs.
There is one intangible that bodes well for the Islanders. They continued to believe in themselves, in their system. When forced to a Game 7 by Philadelphia, the Islanders prevailed. When they lost the first two games of the Lightning series – an 8-2 blowout and a 2-1 heartbreaker on a last second goal – the Islanders didn’t doubt.
“This team, as I said to them, is the most resilient team I’ve coached,” said Trotz, and I’ve coached for a long time.”
If the they can retain that fortitude while Lamoriello builds the roster and Trotz makes it work, the Islanders will have to map out a parade route sooner than they thought.
“I think the bar has always been set high,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “I think this year shows maybe other people how high we think it is. It hurts now, but that’s a silver lining if you want to look at it that way. It’s trending in the right direction.”