Last night, the New York Islanders’ magical run came to a halt, and in as heartbreaking a fashion as one could envision.
Brooks Orpik launched a rocket past Evgeni Nabokov 7:49 into overtime of Game Six, giving the Pittsburgh Penguins a series victory and propelling them into the second round.
I think I speak on behalf of the players, coaching staff, management and fans when I say that nobody wanted it to end and certainly not this way. A disappointing moment for the 16,000-plus who poured into Nassau Coliseum that night, no doubt, but they gave their team a standing ovation as the Isles saluted the crowd for the final time this season.
When all was said and done, you could just sense that these Islander players had given everything they had and so much more. Their compete level, intensity and resiliency was highly evident throughout this series and there were many steps forward that were taken over these past six games.
John Tavares had already proven his superstar status, as far as the regular season was concerned. He was named a Hart Trophy finalist for putting up 47 points in 48 games and, in doing so, giving the Isles the boost they needed to become a playoff team.
But that was the regular season and, ultimately, stars are judged by their playoff performances. Everyone was excited to see Tavares in the postseason, but I think there were a lot of people looking to answer the question of whether or not he was capable of being a “pressure player.”
Well, Tavares responded. He notched five points — three goals, including a game-winner, and two assists — in six games. Other than in Game One, when he went without a shot for the first and only time this year, Tavares was a dominant force.
Kyle Okposo, a subject of much criticism over the majority of the season, silenced his critics in a big way. He scored three goals in the series, all of which came in clutch situations. Okposo had already started to catch fire before the end of the regular season, but he raised his game to an even higher level in these playoffs.
I was also very impressed with Casey Cizikas (two goals, two assists) and Michael Grabner (one goal, three assists), both of whom stepped up and made plays when the moment required that, regardless of how difficult or dire the circumstances were.
Going through the lineup, it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t show up or contribute. Matt Moulson wasn’t quite what he was expected to be, but then again, I’m not sure why Jack Capuano separated him from Tavares and, naturally, that had an adverse effect on his ability to score goals.
Regarding the head coach, I remain unimpressed. There are some things that I like about Capuano and lots of things that I don’t. He is not the man to take the Islanders to that next level, in my opinion.
Evgeni Nabokov was a disappointment, I won’t deny that either. I wouldn’t say that he lost the Islanders this series; it’s just that he didn’t go out there and win it for them, and that’s what upsetting people right now. However, I think there are other factors here.
For starters, Nabokov was facing the deepest offense the NHL has seen in years and was being asked to stand on his head against a group of forwards that are potent enough to make Patrick Roy look like, well, Marc-Andre Fleury.
Then you have the fact that, because the Islanders elected not to wake up until March, they ended up starting Nabokov just about every single night until the end of the season, which is going to take its toll on any 37-year-old goaltender, no matter how good he is. It’s certainly not ridiculous to suggest that Nabby was quite possibly just worn out by the time the playoffs came around.
Even despite what happened these last six games, it still amazed me to see how quickly everyone turned on Nabokov, considering that if not for his own heroics, the Islanders would not have gotten into the postseason.
I think Nabokov will be back, as he should. The Isles do need a backup though, whether it’s Kevin Poulin or not, who will take some more starts and keep Nabby rested and sharp.
As for Mark Streit, I would be surprised if he didn’t return as well. He’s drawn a lot of negative feedback lately, but to be honest, if the Islanders had other guys who were better defensively, Streit wouldn’t be under nearly as much pressure to be a shutdown guy. He’s not supposed to be, anyways; that’s just not his role.
He is, however, crucial to the power play, which was a top-10 unit for most of the year and in large part because of Streit. To lose him would be to take a step back, in my opinion. Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise, because that would be a foolish oversight.
Brad Boyes also becomes an unrestricted free agent in July and the Isles will have to make a decision on him as well. Boyes had his most productive year since 2010-11, amassing 35 points in 48 games, which would put him on pace for roughly 60 in a full 82-game season.
Islander fans never really grew fond of Boyes and, I have to say, I was a bit surprised to see that. I thought he filled P.A. Parenteau’s skates quite nicely and played very well for someone on a one-year, one million dollar contract.
I also noticed that, unlike Parenteau, Boyes hustled on every shift and was hungry for loose pucks. Even when the puck’s not on your stick, you still have to be a hockey player and I think Boyes embodied that. I’d like to see him back in an Islander uniform next season.
The Islanders should receive some upgrades at forward and on defense, with the impending arrival of young studs such as Ryan Strome, (hopefully) Nino Niederreiter, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Matt Donovan and maybe, just maybe, Griffin Reinhart.
I think that, if you’re an Islander fan, that’s what has you psyched more than anything right now, because your team just made the playoffs without its top prospects, a few of which who are amongst the most promising in all of hockey.
Not only did they make the playoffs; the Islanders, who were supposed to be swept, gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a run for their money that nobody saw coming. Nobody, except for the players in that locker room, of course.
If you think about it, this team was two goals, two saves and possibly one less penalty away from knocking out the heavily-favored Pens.
Although they’re moving to the Barclays Center in a few years, it’s absolutely worth noting that Nassau Coliseum has once again become a nightmare of a setting for opposing teams.
New York hadn’t won a home playoff game in Uniondale since 2002, but that changed when they threaded six pucks into the back of the net behind Fleury in Game Four. As for the ones they lost, Games Three and Six, both contests required overtime-winning goals by the Penguins and both featured multiple displays of resiliency by the home team.
I was in attendance for Games Four and Five and, to be honest, my ears are still ringing. The fans rocked the old barn and registered decibal levels that were off the charts. Seth Rorabaugh of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described the crowd as being “a million times louder than any sellout at Consol Energy Center.”
The future is bright and, in this writer’s eyes, the Islanders’ performance over these last six games absolutely signalled the beginning of a new and promising era for this franchise.
Be proud, be excited.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter: @DFriedmanNHL