New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) and defenseman Mark Streit (2) react as the crowd applauds Islanders' season after the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Islanders 4-3 in overtime of Game 6 of a first-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series in Uniondale, N.Y., Saturday, May 11, 2013. The Penguins advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
UNIONDALE, N.Y. - When the shot from Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik struck the back of the net, over 16,000 strong weren't ready for the New York Islanders' season to end.
Especially that suddenly.
Yes, things are definitely different on Long Island these days.
The Islanders' best season since 2007 came to a sudden end Saturday night when Orpik's shot won Game 6 in overtime and gave Pittsburgh a first-round series victory.
Not that it was a surprise that the Penguins moved on. After all, they are the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, and the Islanders barely qualified for their first post-season appearance in six years.
But the Islanders won two games in the series and had three one-goal leads in the final game before finally falling.
"We're going to learn a lot about what it takes to be in the playoffs, to get to the playoffs, and hopefully we're going to understand it's going to take even more to win a series," Islanders star forward John Tavares said. "It's just disappointing. We wanted to play tomorrow and into June. It just stings right now."
Tavares is the No. 1 reason why the Islanders' future is promising. The 22-year-old centre is a finalist for the Hart Trophy, given to the NHL MVP, and he and his teammates were cheered in the first few seconds after the season ended in a flash.
The crowd alternated chants of "M-V-P" and "Let's go Islanders" as the home team trudged off the bench and lined up for the traditional post-series handshake line. It was not so long ago that the Islanders' were the NHL's punch line, and their games were attended by few.
"We took huge strides as an organization," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "Not many people gave us a chance to get where we got. The one thing I told them is we got to this point because of our leadership and our character and the guys we had in this room. They put it on the line every game we played. We are extremely proud of the guys.
"I'm sure that we got some respect around the league right now."
That started with the Penguins, who admitted they had no desire to face the Islanders in a deciding Game 7—even on home ice—on Sunday.
"They're a good hockey team," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "They're going to be in more playoffs.
This is just a first step for the Islanders, who have a good young nucleus with Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey. Throw in veterans such as Matt Moulson, Brad Boyes and aging goalie Evgeni Nabokov, and New York presents a challenge to opponents—even to those as good as the Penguins.
With a move to Brooklyn upcoming within the next few seasons, the Islanders' future looks bright, especially if they can re-establish themselves as a good landing spot for players around the NHL.
They still take a backseat in attention to the New York Rangers, but there was that time in the 1980s when the Islanders ruled the league with four straight championships and a fifth consecutive appearance in the finals.
"We've got good players," Capuano said. "To attract some players—they want to play with good players. They should realize now that we've got a good young corps of guys and we've got some good veterans. I am sure it opened some eyes for some people around the league that will be unrestricted."
The Islanders do have some decisions to make. The soon to be 38-year-old Nabokov is an unrestricted free agent, and he is coming off a series against the Penguins that was hardly his best.
It wasn't that Nabokov didn't play well, he just didn't rise to the occasion and steal a game or two for his club. None of the four goals in the Game 6 loss could be pinned entirely on him, but he was unable to make the crucial saves necessary to protect any of the one-goal leads he was provided.
Nabokov gave up 24 goals in the six games, finishing with a 4.44 goals-against average and a .842 save percentage. New York could look for a younger option in goal in the post-Rick DiPietro era. Nabokov went 23-11-7 with a 2.50 goals-against average, a .910 save percentage and three shutouts in 41 regular-season games.
"At times, we didn't make it too easy for him. We gave up some goals right in front of the net," Tavares said of the playoffs. "He was a leader for us all year. He was huge for us all year."
Boyes, who thrived while playing on a line with Tavares, is also an unrestricted free agent after posting 10 goals and 35 points. Matt Moulson was second on the Islanders in scoring, between Tavares and Boyes, with 15 goals and 44 points.
Tavares and Boyes played in every game, while Moulson missed only one.
The Islanders' offence, which was shut out in two of the four losses to Pittsburgh, countered with 17 goals. New York dropped two games in overtime at home.
"The group in this locker room, we understand now what it takes each and every day to be successful and to compete with these teams in this league," Tavares said, "especially a great team like Pittsburgh with all the talent they have.
"We overcame a lot this year and in this series. It's just unfortunate, we just didn't capitalize enough at the right times and make the most of our opportunities. It's a great bunch of guys, a character locker room. I think you see there is something coming here."
The Islanders (24-17-7) made the most of the lockout-shortened, 48-game season and grabbed the final playoff spot in the East—but they were only two points behind fifth-place Toronto in the post-season chase.
New York went 14-6-4 on the road, and won Game 2 of the playoffs in Pittsburgh after a 5-0 drubbing in the series opener there.
Considering that divisional rivals, and consistent title contenders New Jersey and Philadelphia didn't even get into the playoffs, the Islanders' run—however short—still must be thought of as a building block for the future.
That is why Tavares, who had 28 goals and a team-best 47 points while playing in all 48 games, and the rest of his teammates were given such a fond farewell from the fans Saturday night.
"They respect the work ethic and the desperation that our guys played with," Capuano said. "When you look at the (coach) Al Arbour teams in the 80s and you look at how those guys won the championships, they played with grit, they played with heart, they played with passion. That's the brand of hockey that we want to play here. "