To become a champion in any sport, going through heartbreak is a part of the journey. Especially in the National Hockey League, it’s almost a rite of passage.
The New York Islanders have now suffered that devastation two years in a row at the hands of Tampa Bay Lightning. This year more than last — due to the unforeseen circumstances with the playoffs taking place in a bubble without fans — has more sting because of just how close the franchise was to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 37 years.
It all ended so abruptly too. The shorthanded goal by Yanni Gourde. That marker will go down with some of the other gut-wrenching moments to have occurred in the team’s history. The 18 shots. All of which maybe two had a real threat to them. The third period, which felt like watching a funeral in a fast forward motion
They were within one game. ONE GAME of not just playing for the silver chalice but having home ice in front of what would have been a rabid, unrelenting crowd at Nassau Coliseum. That itself might be what fills the nightmares of both the players and the fans until hope springs eternal again once training camp in September comes calling.
During that wait, and while all the hoopla of the expansion draft and free agency is preoccupying the minds of the country, how the journey has unfolded thus far shouldn’t seem all that foreign.
Why? The Islanders have been here before.
In ‘1975-’76, the Isles were coming off their unexpected run to the Conference Finals. That rag-tag bunch had won their first playoff series in team history against the Rangers the previous spring, came back from down 3-0 in the second round, and came within a game of a Stanley Cup Final berth. They were defeated in seven by the eventual champion Flyers.
One year later, they were back in the same spot. Only this time it was the legendary Montreal Canadiens standing in their way. That series would also go five games with the Habs prevailing. A second straight year ending in demoralizing fashion. Are you sensing a theme yet here?
Well almost like clockwork, the Islanders returned to the same scene again for a third time with Canadiens as the opposition. That matchup wasn’t nearly as competitive with Montreal jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, only for the series to conclude in six games.
Denis Potvin said these words after that defeat: “I hope we haven’t taken everything out of them. I want’ them to go on and win the Cup. That will at least show how good we are. “We’ve lost our last three semifinals. That doesn’t mean we’re not good. Two years ago we lost in seven games to Philadelphia, which went on to manhandle Buffalo for the Stanley Cup.
“Last year it was Montreal who beat us and then went on to take the Cup. Now they’re going on again. I firmly believe we’re the second‐best team in hockey. We should have won the Cup. twice. I really believe that.”
You see, the path the Islanders took back in those years to finally winning it all has become the same for this current team. Now it’s true, the current squad didn’t make it the third round in their first try, having been swept by the upstart Carolina Hurricanes in 2019. But these last two playoff experiences, it’s like history is repeating itself.
At the moment the Isles are probably the second best team in the sport, but they are not there yet in terms of being a champion. And it’s the Lightning who are to the blue and orange now what the Canadiens were to them back then. Oddly enough, the Canadiens would go on to win four titles in a row while beating the Isles twice; Tampa is two wins away from repeating as champions after having to dispose the Islanders the past two postseasons.
Winning takes time and the Islanders of today are right in the thick of it.
“Any time you get close, as close as we did to the Stanley Cup, it drives you,” said Mathew Barzal. “It keeps that fire lit. Last year, Game 6 after that, you could get a sense right away in the locker room. In the first week of training camp, guys were hungry and we wanted to get back there.”
The focus has already shifted to next year for the Islanders and their supporters. Nothing is guaranteed that they get back to the same spot especially with how the landscape of the organization and the league changes day by day. But they have now reached a point where they are so close to be.
A long time ago, another group of players who wore the Islander crest were at the very same juncture before achieving glory.
The Isles of today can look back on those moments and realize a championship is within their grasp.
Follow Rob on Twitter at @RTaub_