Isles Go Down in Flames in Tampa Bay

It all unraveled so quickly for the Islanders. There they were, just four games ago, wrapping up a Game 1 win in Tampa Bay, and now here they are today, shaking their heads and staring forlornly into the distance, wondering how this series fell apart.

Fortunes change drastically and suddenly in the NHL playoffs, bringing emotions along with them. For Isles fans, the euphoria produced by the team’s first-round win over the Florida Panthers and the promise stemming from their opening-game victory against the Lighting have worn off and washed away.

Nikita Kucherov changed the aspect of this series with two huge goals in Games 3 and 4. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Nikita Kucherov changed the aspect of this series with two huge goals in Games 3 and 4. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Dejection has taken their place.

The Isles lost convincingly Sunday afternoon in Game 5, but the series was closer than the 4-1 tally would indicate. Games 3 and 4 could very well have gone the other way had the Islanders buckled down and protected a pair of third period leads. Take away Nikita Kucherov’s two game-tying goals, and we’re beginning to talk about the Isles in the Eastern Conference Finals.

But the Lightning were the better team in the bigger moments, which is how a series is won. The difference between the two sides ballooned when it mattered most, popping the Isles’ postseason dreams in the process. They have no one but themselves to blame.

Overtime hockey is a fickle thing. Games are decided by a bounce here, a call there. It’s a precarious way to progress through the playoffs, a team’s fate left largely in the hands of random events. Against the Panthers, the bounces and the calls went the Islanders’ way; against the Lightning, they did not.

The Isles’ downfall in this series was a familiar one: this team is simply too reliant on the production of John Tavares. After more or less picking up his teammates and lugging them across the finish line in Round 1, Tavares ran into an immovable object in Victor Hedman against the Lightning and was held off the scoresheet for the final four games of the series – the four games, of course, that the Islanders lost.

Victor Hedman
Victor Hedman neutralized John Tavares, and the Isles couldn’t respond. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In all, the Isles were 1-4 in the playoffs when Tavares failed to record a point. Brock Nelson, after a 26-goal season, scored just once in 11 games. Kyle Okposo, playing perhaps his final games as an Islander, scored twice. Everyone else just about carried his weight – and maybe that’s the problem. The ceiling for Tavares’ supporting cast just isn’t all that high.

With the Islanders’ trailing 4-0 on Sunday afternoon and time ticking away in the third period, the NBC cameras panned across the Islanders’ bench. From one player to the next, the resignation was unmistakable: slumped shoulders, tilted heads, vacant stares. Behind them, coach Jack Capuano dolled out pats of encouragement and urged his guys on, grasping at the final strands of his team’s season.

But even he must have known.

The Isles were so far removed from that Game 1 victory, so clearly withdrawn from the optimism it inspired. The feelings weren’t old, but they all felt so very distant.