TAMPA, Fla. — In the end, the Islanders had no answers. And now a summer of uncertainty commences.
A 4-0 shutout by Ben Bishop and the Lightning on Sunday afternoon eliminated the Islanders in five games in their second-round series. After the Isles’ two crushing overtime losses at home in Games 3 and 4, Game 5 was almost never in doubt as Tampa Bay took a two-goal lead after a period.
“We didn’t have a response,” Frans Nielsen said after the handshakes were done on the ice at Amalie Arena. “They had us doing too much work in our end and they were just more aggressive today.”
Victor Hedman was supposed to be Tampa Bay’s shutdown defender on John Tavares. He was all of that, but he also buried the Islanders on offense with two goals in Game 5 and four overall.
His steal off Kyle Okposo and spin-around wrist shot past Thomas Greiss opened the scoring at 13:49 of an evenly played first period. Hedman provided the dagger with a power-play slapper between Greiss’ legs at 4:22 of the second period for a 3-0 lead.
Tavares was held without a point in all four losses and drew more attention on Sunday for four minutes in frustration penalties late in the second period as reality dawned on the captain and his team.
He was the dominant force in getting the Islanders past the first round for the first time since 1993, but Tavares and his teammates lamented the two Barclays Center defeats.
“It’s just another opportunity that’s gone,” he said. “We were able to get a step closer, and that makes you believe that much more. Just weren’t able to capitalize on Games 3 and 4 at home, and losing those put us behind. We got behind early today, were trying to play catch-up. It stings, an opportunity gone. It wasn’t our goal to just get to this point.”
Outside of four goals apiece in Game 1 (plus an empty-netter) and Game 3, the Islanders’ offense went cold. Tavares hit the post early in the third period on a power play and Johnny Boychuk, who didn’t have a point in 11 playoff games, shot one back into Bishop with a yawning net in front of him early in the third before Nikita Kucherov scored on a breakaway to account for the final total.
“Offensively, they took advantage of their opportunities,” Jack Capuano said. “We couldn’t find a way here these last few games to score some goals. You’ve got to get more than one and we didn’t get any tonight.”
The offseason suddenly is upon a team that could look vastly different when training camp starts in September. Okposo, Nielsen and Matt Martin will become unrestricted free agents on July 1, also the day that Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky take over as majority owners from Charles Wang. Travis Hamonic’s preseason trade request could be honored this summer, too.
Should two or three of the core members move on, a tight-knit Islanders group could wind up wondering what might have been.
“It [stinks] more, to be honest,” a glassy-eyed Hamonic said. “I think people know how close we are. We genuinely love playing with each other, being around each other.”
In addition to his 28 saves, Bishop altered the Isles’ chip-and-charge style by playing dump-ins well to get his team’s transition game moving. And Kucherov, who scored killer tying goals in the third periods of Games 3 and 4, was too much to handle along with linemates Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.
Add Hedman, who had eight points in the five-game series, and the Islanders’ lack of depth on offense was exposed. That too is something Garth Snow will have to address this offseason.
Despite the five-game result, the Islanders were not dismissed outright in the series. They were the better team for the majority of Games 3 and 4, but that doesn’t provide much solace.
“Those were our two best games of the playoffs,” Nielsen said, “but today they were better.”
And now an offseason of upheaval begins, too soon for the Islanders.