27 years ago, the Islanders lost to the Montreal Canadiens four games to one in the Wales Conference Finals. It was a magical journey that included a stunning upset of the back to back Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, but at the end of the day, the Islanders came up short of their ultimate goal.
27 years later, history has repeated itself…sort of.
The Islanders’ loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, culminating with a 2-1 overtime loss in game six, ended what was an unprecedented and exciting ride through the summer in the Toronto bubble. But then the magic ended after the trip to the bubble in Edmonton. The Islanders were able to overcome some adversity in the first three rounds including an injury to Johnny Boychuck in the very first playoff game facing elimination in game seven against Philadelphia and a powerless power play that could never quite get on track during the post-season.
There Islanders came up two wins and really just a few goals from being in the Stanley Cup Final.
“You make a run like this,” said Captain Anders Lee. “You battle for one another. It’s hard to explain what you do for the guy sitting next to you. We’re trying to still process it all right now but it’s going to be nice moving forward with these guys.”
The Islanders certainly had their chances against Tampa Bay, but game two slipped away with less than nine seconds to go in regulation, Casey Cizikas suffered a season ending injury in game two, and then in game four, a pair of Tampa Bay goals twelve seconds apart, seventeen seconds after the Islanders had taken the lead, put the Isles’ season on the brink. They were able to stay alive with a game five double-overtime victory, but in that game, defenseman Adam Pelech suffered an injury that kept him out of game six and will require off-season surgery.
And then the season ended with overtime in game six and the loss is even more painful because Brock Nelson could have won it, but couldn’t convert on a shorthanded breakaway in OT.
I could list a host of silver linings to sum up the season, but that will be a story for another day. When a team gets so close to winning a championship there’s an empty feeling when the journey is not completed. There’s nothing to be ashamed about when you are one of the last four teams standing during a post-season, but the sadness is compounded by the fact that you just don’t know when you’re getting back to that point.
However, this may just turn out to be a learning lesson for the Islanders, similar to the painful playoff losses in 1978 and 1979 before the dynasty started in 1980.
“We’ll see if we can build on that and take the next step, said Head Coach Barry Trotz. “You don’t always do it your first crack at it. That’s why you have to go back and you have to do it again until you climb that mountain. We got fairly close. We can see the mountain top but we never got to the mountain top.”
27 years ago, after the loss to Montreal, the late Al Arbour said that it wasn’t the end for that Islanders team but just the beginning. Things didn’t go according to plan as the “Gang of Four”, the management group that ran the team for owner John Pickett, and General Manager Don Maloney ripped up an emerging team that Bill Torrey had assembled before being pushed out the door.
Then came the fisherman jersey era, Mike Milbury, John Spano, multiple ownership changes, “pigs at the trough” (look it up if you don’t know what I’m referring to there), arena issues and lots of seasons that didn’t include playoff berths.
Yada Millbury Yada, since that last trip to the conference final in 1993 there were only seven trips to the playoffs (1994, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2016) before last season. The Islanders franchise and their fans have been through a lot since 1993 and while there is a much better taste in their mouths with the current regime, the stability of the organization, and what lies ahead at their new home UBS Arena at Belmont Park, losing in the Eastern Conference Final is a tough pill to swallow.
It’s tough to get so close to something and not complete the task. If I go to the supermarket with ten items on my shopping list and one item is either not available or I simply forgot to get it, I can always go back and finish the job. In sports, it’s not that easy to get back to the point where your journey came to an end.
The Islanders are feeling that pain right now because you just don’t know when you’ll be in the same situation. I’ll say this though…while the feeling right now is sadness and frustration for the organization and everyone in Islanders Country, I don’t think there will be another 27 year wait to get to a conference final and for the first time in a long time there is a legitimate feeling that the 5th Stanley Cup in team history is not too far away.
Scott Malkin, Jon Ledecky, Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz.
Thursday night was a sad ending to an exciting run, but the story will continue. The Islanders are in good hands with adult supervision.