The Islanders Win all but the Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup is the most celebrated trophy in sports. It takes 16 wins of grit, determination, adversity and endurance to attain the elusive prize. There are moments during that run that can turn an organization and its fans into believers that the Stanley Cup is within reach.

When Anthony Beauvillier ended Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals with an overtime goal, the New York Islanders thought they were a team of destiny. After all, this team overcame three playoff series where they fell behind two games to one and now forced a seventh game against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Confidence brimmed throughout the franchise heading into Game 7. The Islanders had not played an elimination game in this playoff year to this point, yet overcame deficits and played up to their opponents. The challenge this time, however, was figuring out a way to advance without the help of home ice.

The Lightning dominated the Islanders in an 8-0 victory in Game 5 and seemed poised that their past championship experience would lead them to the Stanley Cup Final for a second consecutive year. Both teams matched evenly on both ends of the ice for most of the series aside from Game 5 and it appeared as though one shift or goal would decide the eventual outcome.

Former Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy maintained his unyielding play in net notching 18 saves, while the Tampa Bay defence limited the Islanders from getting quality scoring chances. Anthony Cirelli, who ended the Isles championship aspirations in 2020, contributed to their playoff exit again when his pass set up Yanni Gourde in the second period for the lone goal of Game 7. The Islanders kept pace with the Lightning for the rest of the game, but could not find the equalizer.

“This group is special with their character, their work ethic, their will, and their commitment,” Islanders bench boss Barry Trotz said. “This group believed and still believe that we could do this, but it is a lot of pain because they gave it their all. There are some guys that were beat up, worn out, and hurt and they just keep going.”

“It takes so much effort and commitment to get to this point and you need everyone on board and it’s tough,” forward Josh Bailey said. “(When you get to) Game 7 in a Conference Final, you have thoughts of obviously wanting to accomplish something with this group and winning a cup. It was just not in the cards this year. It is a tough pill to swallow.”

Coming off a six-game defeat to the Lightning in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, the Islanders played with a sense of determination and focus during the 2020-21 regular season, where they finished with a 32-17-7 record and 71 points in a division that contained three teams that won the Eastern Conference championship in the last five years in the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins.

The Islanders asserted their dominance at home, losing just four games in regulation, while Mathew Barzal continued to develop into a young star with 17 goals and 45 points in 55 games. Oliver Wahlstrom broke into the starting lineup as a rookie, while second-year defenseman Noah Dobson showed considerable growth in his second season. The team’s quality play during the regular season translated into the playoffs, where they upset the Penguins and Bruins in six games before falling one game short of the Stanley Cup Final against the Lightning.

“If you come down to one goal in Game 7 of the Conference Final, you will take that,” Barzal said. “Credit to them (the Lightning). They locked us up pretty well in the third period, and it was not our time. It was right there and hopefully, we will be back there next year and it will be a different story.”

“I appreciate that (we came this close)”, defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “It is an honor to play with these guys. I don’t think back to back being the last four teams is a fluke. I don’t know if too many people believed in us the first couple of rounds, but we believe in our ourselves and we are a confident group.”

When a team like the Islanders gets to the brink of a championship series, they wonder if the outcome would change had circumstances been in their favour, such as having home ice in Game 7, or not losing captain Anders Lee for the season in March. In the same breath, they also seek to address any deficiencies and find the missing piece to a championship contender.

The Islanders may look to upgrade their forward depth in the offseason in free agency and get an additional scorer, with Taylor Hall and Blake Coleman among the notable players on the market. The club will also have to determine if they wish to bring back Kyle Palmieri, who came over from the Devils at the trade deadline, and which players they will leave unprotected in the expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken.

Although the Islanders did not complete their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, they won over the hockey world and established credibility both in the New York market and at the national level. They are now perennial contenders that other franchises will look to model themselves after and try to beat in the road to the Stanley Cup.

From the groundwork laid by Garth Snow and the previous regime to the talent nurtured and developed by Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello, the Islanders are a franchise with the foundation in place to bring the Stanley Cup back to Long Island for the first time in four decades. Getting there, however, remains a challenge they embrace and hope to overcome in the future.

“We are on the right path,” Trotz said. “I told the guys you have to keep going back. It’s just like Tampa Bay. They had some heartache before they won the cup and now win two. When you win a cup with a group, it is special. That is a bond that never goes away.”

“This group from day one (with the Islanders), we put something together with the character and the constant work ethic that they bring, and it starts with Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, and our leadership group. They are not scared of the challenge. To me, that’s an exceptional group that values each other and their importance.”

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