Anders Lee reflects on Islanders’ trip to conference finals
Whether they played at Downtown’s Barclays Center, the renovated Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, or at the NHL’s bubble sites in Toronto or Edmonton, Alberta, the New York Islanders put together their best season in nearly three decades this past year.
And team captain Anders Lee was right in the middle of it.
“It’ll be a season for any team and anyone who was a part in it, it’ll be a season you’ll never really forget,” Lee said Monday, just over a month since the Isles were eliminated from the Eastern Conference finals by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
The campaign marked New York’s deepest run in the postseason since 1993, when they also lost in the conference finals.
It also left them just two wins shy of their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1984.
The Isles, who won four consecutive Cups from 1980-83, liked what they felt as they knocked off Florida in the preliminary round, bested Washington in the conference quarterfinals and edged top-seeded Philadelphia in the East semis.
But losing in six tough games to the Lightning, then watching Tampa lift the cup in Edmonton after knocking off Dallas last month, left Lee and his teammates hungering for more.
“[The challenge] will be getting back there,” Lee noted. “I don’t think we felt the distance of those extra six wins was very great. You get to that point in the season and it’s such a fine line, the separation between teams — and Tampa was extremely deserving — but it’s tight.
“It’s a long road regardless and now that we as a group accomplished a decent amount of it, it excites you to get back to that spot, that’s for sure,” he added.
Getting back to the threshold of a conference championship won’t come easy, even with the steady stewardship of Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz and Hall of Fame executive Lou Lamoriello.
But nothing happened as planned in 2020 for the Isles, who were in the midst of a season-high seven-game losing streak when the COVID-19 pandemic shut their season down for four months.
The Isles rebounded quickly when play began again at the end of July.
They beat the Panthers in four games during the best-of-five preliminary round and then eliminated Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in five games in a best-of-seven series.
Beating the Flyers in a critical Game 7 after squandering chances to close them out in Games 5 and 6, respectively, fueled Lee and his teammates for what they felt could be more than just a special season, but a championship one.
However, the Lightning found a way to pull out Game 6 in overtime, ending any hope the Isles had of skating around with their first Stanley Cup in 37 years.
Though the dream ended a bit too early for Lee, the experience of going through three playoff rounds and nearly a fourth should resonate as the Isles begin prepping for the 2021 campaign, which will be their last in either Uniondale or Brooklyn before moving into the UBS Arena in Elmont, New York.
“It’s incredible how fast the building is going up,” Lee said of the state-of-the-art facility, which sits adjacent to the legendary Belmont Race Track.
“Kudos to the crews out there and the people that are putting in all the hard work for our organization and fans. It’s going to be a special spot.”
The Isles aren’t slated to begin next season until Jan. 1 at the earliest, as per the NHL’s target date.
But whether they wind up back in a bubble, within the friendly confines of the Coliseum or here in Brooklyn, where they’ve been since 2015, Lee and the rest of the Isles will never forget the season that was.
Even if it didn’t end the way any of them wanted.
“From taking 10 months to complete, and all the things that everyone went through from the shutdown, where we were as a team before that and how we came out of it and the run that we went on,” Lee said of what he will remember about the season.
“There’s always going to be that sting of not completing what we set out to do, but I mean I look back on it a month out, it was pretty special, we learned a lot, we did a lot and I think that sting and that disappointment, it’ll never leave you, but it’s something we can handle and grow from.”
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