Let me take you back to July 1 of last year.
The New York Islanders, for all the suffering they’ve put themselves and their fans through since the glory years of the early ’80s, had just taken another blow to the gut. Their captain, fearless leader, and face of the franchise, John Tavares, announces that he’s decided not to re-sign after nine seasons and scurries away to his native Toronto for his childhood Maple Leafs.
Within minutes, a fan base — so used to being the brunt of other fans around the league for a long time — felt nothing but dejection. On top of that, there was a sense that the franchise was in ruins and that it was only going to get instantly worse before maybe there were some brighter days ahead.
Head coach Barry Trotz in the aftermath of Tavares leaving, said that he got several calls from players on the team telling him that they will be just fine without number 91 no longer in the fold. But nobody, fans, pundits, and maybe even the GM himself — could have predicted that faith would become the rallying cry for what has taken place this season.
Nine months, 16 days later to be exact, this franchise and this fan base has been resurrected from the dead and are dreaming the possibilities after what they just witnessed over the last six nights.
Last night, the Islanders completed the sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins and punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the second time in four years. The unthinkable, yet convincing result, gave the franchise its first playoff series sweep since the 1983 Stanley Cup Final, where the Islanders defeated the Edmonton Oilers in four.
Some of the numbers from the series are staggering, but they show how much the Isles have changed in identity and team-first mentality.
4:51 the only amount of time the Islanders trailed in the ENTIRE series; allowing six goals in four games; future Hall of Famers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combining for just four points in the series; the penalty kill going 10 for 11 in four games; the Isles scoring three or more goals in every game.
Make no mistake, the Islanders dominated this series and deserved the sweep, even if Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan stated last night that “It was a lot closer than the optics.”
The Isles were the better team at both ends of the ice. At even strength, they outworked and outperformed the Pens in every facet; got phenomenal goaltending from Robin Lehner while Matt Murray faltered at key moments. Special teams, they received extraordinary efforts while the Pittsburgh looked like they had no answer.
It was exactly the type of effort Trotz has instilled in his troops since before the year started — everyone pulling the rope and playing for each other.
Now the fun part comes.
Topping off at 103 points — the most since their last Cup winning season — to end the year, a second place finish in the Metropolitan Division, cutting down the goals against by 100 to go from the league’s worst to league’s best, all of that has gotten the Isles to a point where whatever they do from here is gravy.
The dynamic around this organization has shifted.
Maybe we should have actually seen this coming after December 28th in Toronto. That night the Islanders rocked their old pal Tavares and the Leafs 4-0, and in essence, announced to the hockey world that no one should take them lightly. Or maybe it should have been when they went on an unprecedented 15-3-1 run in January and February; either way, how the Isles and the fan base have come together as one sturdy unit, shows that there’s a new found belief in this team.
— x-Isles Meetups (@IslesMeetups) April 17, 2019
Don’t excuse those Islanders fans who were pumping their chest out today; there have been few days in the last five or so years where they had that chance.
This fan base has been starving for success for over two-plus decades. They deserve to cherish every minute of what’s happening in front of them and possibly what’s to come. And if there was ever a year for all the stars to align, it’s this one.
With Tampa Bay shockingly out of the playoffs, the Eastern Conference is officially wide open. There’s still the Bostons, the Torontos and the Washingtons of the world, but right now is the Isles chance to return back to those days when they were the class of the league winning Conference titles and Stanley Cup Championships.
All the detest that filled a majority of the fans when Tavares departed, to ridiculously switching between two buildings in the middle of the season to play home games, to having a coach and g.m. that breathed new life into the franchise with pride and accountability, this year and more importantly this spring, has already changed the outlook of where the organization is heading.
“The players have bought in from day one. The veterans we brought in had no egos. This group is probably the most egoless of any group,” g.m. Lou Lamoriello said today on WFAN.
They might or might not know their opponent — the Washington Capitals or Carolina Hurricanes — until early next week, but that doesn’t shy away from the fact this group can go toe-to-toe with any team put in front of them. Sweeping a championship-laden squad like Pittsburgh proves that; but it’s their will to win, the structure they play with and their ability to stay composed (just like their coach) that proves that fact even truer.
No one can predict what will happen from here on out, but with how wildly unpredictable this season continues to be, is it really out of the realm for fans to dream about this team playing into late May or early June?
That’s the fun part of your team being in the playoffs. Anything can happen.
I said it before the first round got started: this Islander team had nothing to lose but everything to gain.
They’ve proven a lot of people wrong already with their sweep of Pittsburgh, but they still might not be finished. Like Matt Martin said last night, “We have just as good a chance as anybody”.
That chance wasn’t even in the thought process of anyone associated with the Islanders just mere months ago. Instead, that opportunity has led to a continuous voyage that no one hopes ends anytime soon.
This team is for real. This franchise is back. And the ride has only begun.
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