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Isles end season on the cusp of bigger, better things

Team grows during bubble run, sets sights on next year

September 23, 2020 John Torenli
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The New York Islanders fell short of their ultimate goal: delivering the franchise’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1984.

But the long, hard grind to the Eastern Conference finals, coupled with New York’s never-say-die approach through four playoff rounds, doubtlessly steeled the Isles for next year’s run at Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice and beyond.

“This is one of the most resilient teams I’ve coached and I’ve coached for a long time,” New York head coach Barry Trotz said after the Isles were eliminated from postseason contention with a 2-1 overtime loss to Tampa Bay last Thursday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

“I’m real proud of what we’ve done and the strides we’ve made.”

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Those strides were rather lofty for a team that entered the NHL’s fanless bubble site in Toronto on the outside looking in at the playoff picture.

The Isles, idle and separated for nearly four months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, breezed through their qualifying round series against Florida in four games.

They needed only five games in the first-round best-of-seven to eliminate Trotz’s former team, the Washington Capitals, before surviving an epic seven-game series with top-seeded Philadelphia to reach their first conference finals since 1993.

Though they looked outmatched against the Lightning at times, dropping an 8-2 decision in their first game at the league’s other bubble site in Edmonton, Alberta, the Isles rebounded to force Tampa into a hotly contested six-game series that saw the final two games go to overtime.

“It’s a special group in our room,” team captain Anders Lee said.

“Till that very last minute, every single one of us believed in each other and what we were doing and the road we were on. Obviously we came up short, but there’s a huge sense of pride right now in every single one of those guys and everyone involved.”

Once described as long-suffering, this franchise has now jumped into elevated status.

The Isles are one of only five teams from the East to advance as far as the conference semifinals in three of the past five seasons, having won at least one playoff series in each of the last two years, be it at Downtown’s Barclays Center, the renovated Nassau Coliseum or at the bubble.

Armed with a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Trotz, a Hall of Fame team president in Lou Lamoriello, who was named the league’s general manager of the year, and a cast of veteran and up-and-coming skaters, the Isles might be ready to seriously contend for the title year after year.

“The bar [here] has always been set high,” defenseman Scott Mayfield insisted. “This year shows maybe other people how high we think it is.

“There’s been ups and downs, there’s been some tough times, but with the staff we have here, the ownership we have here, it’s turned the corner and we showed that last year in playoffs getting to the second round and this year getting to the conference finals. It hurts now, but that’s a silver lining. It’s trending in the right direction.”

Those trends should continue, especially if the Isles finally get into their new home arena in time for the 2021-22 campaign.

New York has split its home games between the Coliseum and Barclays in each of the past several seasons after playing exclusively in Brooklyn from 2015 to 2017.

With the shuttering of the Coliseum this summer for an indefinite period, the Isles could wind up playing all 41 of their scheduled home contests back in Brooklyn this year if the pandemic allows for bubble-free play in winter.

Regardless of how that plays out, the team is confident that the Belmont Arena, situated adjacent to the legendary race track in Elmont, N.Y., will be ready for the season after next, giving the Isles a sense of home as they enter what they hope will be a period of sustained success on and off the ice.

“Organizationally it’s really important to see what’s happening on the Island,” Trotz noted. “The change obviously with Lou coming in, the facilities, what the Island is all about, the excitement of Belmont, a permanent home for us and the type of character that represents the Islanders.

“Just a lot of good things. Any time that you can do deep in the playoffs, for any organization, there are experiences for going deep for your org that you can’t get any other way.”

In falling two wins shy of their first Stanley Cup appearance in 36 years, the Isles saw both of their goaltenders, Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss, step up when needed.

The run also forced the continued development of young stars like Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier and Adam Pelech while confirming the reliability of veterans like Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, Lee and Johnny Boychuk.

Most importantly, it gave the Isles a wealth of knowledge and experience that they want to translate into a Stanley Cup title over the next several seasons.

“We learned to go the distance and the distance is hard,” Trotz said. “The growth for our group has been really good. We’ll see if we can build on that and take the next step … You don’t always do it your first crack at it, that’s why you have to go back until you climb that mountain.

“We got close. We could see the mountain top, but we couldn’t get to the mountain top.”

With a lengthy playoff run behind them, the Islanders now look forward to adding a banner or two to their proud Stanley Cup history. Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

Isle Have Another: Bailey led the Isles with 20 points during the playoffs, including a team-high 18 assists. … Nelson and Eberle tied for the team lead with nine goals during the postseason. … Varlamov played brilliantly in last Thursday’s Game 6 loss, making a playoff career-high 46 saves before Anthony Cirelli sent the Isles home in overtime. “We had a chance to win,” the Russian netminder lamented. “Disappointing, of course. We want to go to the final and I think we had a chance to go to the final and play there, but we lost. Season’s over.”

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