TAMPA — Mathew Barzal tried to find the words through soft sniffles as tears welled up in his eyes. Brock Nelson held his head in his hand, unable to get through more than a sentence at a time. Josh Bailey’s voice trembled, while Scott Mayfield stared blankly.
The Islanders had just come one win, and one goal, away from qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final on Friday night at Amalie Arena, as they fell 1-0 to the Lightning in Game 7 of the semifinal series. If the team thought they came close last season after losing in six games to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, this time around must’ve felt like they were inches — no, centimeters — away from earning a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup for the franchise’s first time in 37 years.
What made the dreary postgame scene all the more difficult to endure, was that the Islanders players weren’t feeling sorry for themselves as individuals, but for each other. It’s the reason why this playoff run was so special: The Islanders are a team that has undoubtedly competed for one another all season long.
So as Nelson and Mayfield commended goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who kept the Islanders in the game with 30 saves, and head coach Barry Trotz proclaimed he wished he could take away his player’s pain, it was clear the Islanders — from top to bottom — were only thinking about each other until the very end.
“I think it’s tough for everyone,” Barzal said. “It sucks getting back to this point and coming up short again. Got guys like Bails and [Andy Greene], veteran guys. I have a few more years but you want to win for those guys. It hurts seeing those guys in the locker room afterward knowing how close we were.”
Once the sting of a Game 7 loss wears off, the Isles should be able to positively reflect on a memorable playoff run. Not only did they prove that last season’s conference finals appearance wasn’t a fluke, but they pushed the defending champions to the brink and fell short by a single goal on the road.
The Islanders were tenacious, relentless and unapologetically played to their strengths all postseason. There was Bailey’s double-overtime winner in Game 6 of the second round against the Penguins, the New York Saints rebrand (courtesy of Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy) in the second-round series against Boston and Ryan Pulock’s save heard round the Island in Game 4 of the semifinals this past week.
The smell of cigarettes and beer permeated the air, and Bud Light tall boys blanketed the ice, at the last Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum Wednesday night when Anthony Beauvillier’s overtime winner forced Game 7.
“I don’t think back to back being the last four teams is a fluke,” Mayfield said. “I don’t know if too many people believed in us the first couple rounds, but we believed in ourselves.”
Alas, the offseason is now upon the Islanders. The organization is already up against the 2021-22 cap, the expansion draft list is due in three weeks, and there are important restricted free agents to take care of in Beauvillier, Adam Pelech and Ilya Sorokin. A decision will need to be made regarding unrestricted free agents Casey Cizikas, Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, as well.
Is Oliver Wahlstrom, the rookie sharpshooter who lost his lineup spot to Zajac after getting injured in Round 1, ready to take on a more significant role next season? Is this the end of the road for the Identity Line? What do the Islanders have to do to finally break through to the Stanley Cup Final?
These are all questions that will need to be answered before the start of the 2021-22 season, which is to begin in early October. It’s probably for the best that it’ll be a short offseason. Less time for the Islanders to dwell on the heartbreak.
Oh, and let the UBS Arena era begin.