The pain the New York Islanders were feeling was raw and evident in the tears in their eyes and their cracking voices.
They battled and believed until the final horn of their 1-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals at Amalie Arena on Friday that it was their turn to break through this season.
So it hurt even more that they came up one goal, one win short and the Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final at their expense for the second straight season.
“It [stinks] getting back to this point and coming up short again,” center Mathew Barzal said.
After losing to the Lightning in six games in the Eastern Conference Final last season and watching them go on to win the Stanley Cup, the Islanders thought they were ready to take another step this season and reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984. They pushed the best-of-7 series to the distance this time after a 3-2 overtime win in Game 6 on Wednesday but couldn’t find a way to break through in Game 7.
“It’s still kind of sinking in,” forward Josh Bailey said. “The loss hurts. Game 7 in the [semifinals], you have thoughts of obviously wanting to move on and accomplish something with this group and win the Cup, and it was not in the cards this year, so it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
It came down to one big mistake. The Islanders lost focus during a power play and Yanni Gourde capitalized by scoring a shorthanded goal 1:49 into the second period. Semyon Varlamov stopped 30 of 31 shots to keep the Islanders within one goal, but they couldn’t get anything past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and a stifling Lightning defense that limited them to 18 shots on goal and blocked 21 other attempts.
Barzal had the Islanders’ best chance to tie it with 5:23 remaining when Scott Mayfield‘s shot from the right point ricocheted off a player in front directly to Barzal to the left of the net. Barzal appeared to have a half-empty net in front of him, but he swung and missed at the bouncing puck.
“Being down one goal going into the third period in Game 7 of the [semifinals], you’ll take that,” Barzal said. “Credit to them. They locked us up pretty good in the third period. We couldn’t find one. A couple of good chances and it’s just not our time. It’s right there. Hopefully we’ll be back here next year and it’s a different story.”
There was a long wait before the Islanders emerged from what had clearly been an emotional postgame locker room. Barzal and Brock Nelson sat next to each other sniffing back tears while they tried to find the words to describe their disappointment. It was similar when Bailey and Mayfield spoke before them.
“I said to this them this group is special,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Their character, their work ethic, their will, their commitment, to me it’s undeniable. It’s so strong. This group believed that we could do this. They still believe we could, but it’s just a lot of pain because they gave their all.”
New York knew it had a thin margin for error if it were going knock off the defending champs. Tampa Bay won 8-0 in Game 5, but it was a tight series otherwise, with five games decided by one goal.
“I think they’re a better team now than they were last year, and we took them to the brink because I think we’re a better team as well,” Trotz said. We’ve learned some lessons on the way here.”
Trotz listed the Lightning’s impressive collection of players, from Vasilevskiy to a strong defense anchored by Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, to skilled forwards such as Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos and grinding depth forwards such as Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.
The Islanders don’t have as many flashy names, but they have pieces that fit together well. Barzal, who led New York with five points in the series (three goals, two assists) is emerging as a star, and the defense pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock is slowly gaining recognition as one of the best in the NHL.
“It’s an honor to play with these guys,” Mayfield said. “Back to back, being in the last four teams, I don’t think that’s a fluke. I don’t know if too many people believed in us the first couple rounds, but we believed in ourselves. We’re a confident group. It’s stings right now, but it is what it is.”