A four-line team built to win at even strength, the New York Islanders lost another chance to make it to a Stanley Cup Final by surrendering a dismal shorthanded goal that was all the Tampa Bay Lightning needed for a 1-0 victory Friday in Game 7.
The Islanders have earned more playoff games than any team in the National Hockey League over the last three seasons, but are still looking for the franchise’s first trip to the Final since New York’s glittering dynasty ended with a loss to the Edmonton Oilers in 1984.
It is against those great players – Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Clark Gillies – that all Islanders since have been measured. Generally, they’ve disappointed, although this New York team, full of guile and grit and lineup depth instead of superstars, appeared capable of finally pushing aside some of the old ghosts whose accomplishments are impossible to replicate.
But for the second straight season, it was the Lightning – better than they were last year when they won the Stanley Cup — who crushed Islander hopes with a semifinal victory.
Everything in sports hurts more with age, and this veteran New York team eventually will run out of chances.
It’s impossible to know, but Friday’s game may be the closest some of them will ever get to a Stanley Cup.
“I said to them: 'This group is special,’” Islanders coach Barry Trotz told reporters. “Their character, their work ethic, their will, their commitment, to me it's undeniable. It's so strong. This group believed that we could do this. We still believe we could, but it's just a lot of pain. They gave their all.
“There's really a bond between all the players that is really strong. The disappointing thing is we didn't get this game and that group in that room won't be together again.”
Mathew Barzal, the only Islander with skill and flair to rival the best players on Tampa, choked back tears as he talked about the impact of losing on New York’s senior players.
“We've got guys like Bails (career-Islander Josh Bailey, 31) and Greener (38-year-old Andy Greene) and veteran guys,” he said. “You know, I've got a few more years but you want to win for those guys. It hurts seeing those guys in the locker room afterwards.”
It hurts as well that the Islanders, whose special-teams play under Trotz has starkly failed to match the team’s even-strength efficiency since the coach arrived three years ago, surrendered the game’s only goal during the game’s only power play.
On a New York advantage that began 50 seconds into the middle period, Bailey puck-watched and wandered out of position as Yanni Gourde burst from the Lightning bench, skated unchecked on to Anthony Cirelli’s pass in the slot and snapped the puck past Islander goalie Semyon Varlamov at 1:49.
One shot. Seven ferocious games and one shot was the difference between going to the Stanley Cup Final and going home.
“We gave a goal away,” Brock Nelson, another career Islander, lamented of a shorthanded goal that matched the number of power-play goals New York generated in the series.
“No matter what, that's a situation we'd really like to have back,” Bailey said. “It stings. It's so hard to just get to this point.”
Outshot 27-11 in the first two periods, the Islanders managed to coax only 18 saves from Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. But they actually attempted one more shot than the Lightning, 49-48, but had a staggering 21 shots blocked by fearless Tampa players.
Lightning defencemen Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev blocked five apiece.
And it didn’t help the Islanders’ attack that Barzal, who orchestrated New York’s 3-2 comeback win in overtime in Game 6, played only 4:23 of the first period and received just eight shifts from Trotz in the first half of the game.
On a night when most Islander skaters had shots-for percentages under 50, Barzal easily led his team with a 65.2 percent Corsi-for.
The Islanders’ Kyle Palmieri-Jean-Gabriel Pageau-Travis Zajac line was caved in during its matchup against the Gourde line. With Pageau clearly playing hurt, the Islanders were outshot 11-2 when he was on the ice.
“Being down one goal going into the third period of Game 7 of the conference final, you'll take that,” Barzal said. “They locked us up pretty good in the third period, and (we) just couldn't find one. It's not our time. We're right there. Hopefully, we're back next year and it's a different story.”
“It's a lot of pain for this group,” Trotz said. “We put something together here with the character and the constant work ethic that they bring, and commitment that they bring, and a really tight group. They're not scared of the challenge and they don't cut corners. To me, that's an exceptional group that really values each other. You have some teams and some guys don't value the other guys, and that's maybe why you don't go as far as you want to. I think this group values everybody's importance.”
He later added: “I've had the opportunity to win a Cup and know how that feels. And I just really wanted this group to feel that as well.”