Deflating. Gut-wrenching. Tragic. Demoralizing. Heartbreaking.
There are a plethora of adjectives that could be used to appropriately describe the Islanders’ Game 7 loss to Tampa Bay.
It was a difficult end to what was, in many respects, a storybook season. For all my gripes about the regular season format, the playoffs were every bit as challenging as they usually are.
With capacity crowds filling the Nassau Coliseum, the playoffs also represented a return to some sense of pre-pandemic normalcy. They gave us a chance to feel things we perhaps hadn’t felt or hear things we hadn’t heard in so long. We went from digital crowd noise to real human lungs and threatened to blow the roof right off the building on several occasions.
It really was a special run and the Isles demonstrated that, not only wasn’t last year’s trip to the Conference Finals a fluke but that they were even more prepared this time around.
They pushed Tampa to the brink. It took the only shorthanded goal they’d surrendered the entire year to sink them. That goal was the only one the high-voltage Lightning managed to score in that Game 7, just enough for a 1-0 victory.
Last year, the Islanders had their moments but were otherwise generally outplayed by Tampa in the series. This year, they skated with them every step of the way — minus the anomaly that was their uncharacteristic 8-0 loss in Game 5.
This was no accident. They weren’t lucky to have made it to Game 7. They earned it. The Isles proved that they’re a damn good hockey team and one that expects to be in a position to contend.
Now, I didn’t think they had the pieces to win a Stanley Cup this year. But, I also believed that they were pretty close to getting there. As it turns out, even I had underestimated just how close they actually are.
They’re right there. I mean, literally, right there. They’re so close to being a team that can realistically win the Stanley Cup that you can taste it.
Given this franchise’s tumultuous past, we’ve often settled for less. “Hey, at least they won a round.” That was great when it happened for the first time since 1993. “Can’t believe they swept Pittsburgh!” The first taste of dominance. It felt good. “Wow, they really pushed Tampa to 6 games. The series could’ve been over in 3.” Yeah, that’s nice.
But it’s not enough anymore. The bar has officially been risen.
I’m done with surprising the experts and underdog stories. I’m done with celebrating the fact that they’re not the mediocre team they used to be under previous ownership and management.
I want it. I want the Stanley Cup.
This may seem like a sharp 180-degree turn from my pre-Game 7 column preaching some perspective, but it’s not. You can desire something while also being able to put it into perspective.
The Islanders are so close. So unbelievably close. They have a lot of great pieces in place. They just need a little more.
Whatever your thoughts are on Barry Trotz’s lineup decisions, the Isles didn’t lose to Tampa because Oliver Wahlstrom didn’t play or because Leo Komarov was on the first line. They lost to Tampa because they weren’t as good as their opponent.
And I’m not talking about on paper, because nobody’s as good as the Lightning on paper. But as a team, with their system and personnel, the Islanders were very likely a player (or two at most) away from having been able to pull it off. They can do it. They’re right there.
If coming this close and falling just short doesn’t spur the Isles’ front office into action to get this roster over the edge, I don’t know what will. Their efforts this year are to be commended but, if they’re not built upon, it will all have been in vain.
Cap space and bad contracts, be damned. Figure it out. Find a way to make this team a champion.
I want it. I want The Cup.
Follow Dan on Twitter @DanJFriedman