One of the more excruciating things a professional athlete has to go through is sitting — in this case virtually — and taking questions from the media after a heartbreaking loss; one that ends a season tantalizingly close to the ultimate goal.
That’s where the Islanders found themselves on Friday night as they fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinal — just short of making their first appearance in the Final since 1984.
“It’s still kind of sinking in,” Josh Bailey, the longest-tenured Islander that has been with the franchise for 13 years, said. “The loss, it hurts. Game 7 of the conference final, you have thoughts of obviously wanting to move on and accomplishing something with this group and winning a Cup. It wasn’t in the cards this year. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
The usually level-headed Bailey was visibly upset when fielding questions, and understandably he wasn’t the only one, as star center Mathew Barzal attempted to conceptualize what a second-straight loss in the semifinal to the Lightning meant.
It also signified just how tight-knit of a group it is.
“It sucks getting back to this point and come up short again,” the 24-year-old Barzal said. “We got guys like [Bailey] and [38-year-old defenseman Andy Greene] and veteran guys who, ya know — I got a few more further years. Those guys, you want to win for those guys.
“It hurts seeing those guys in the locker room afterward knowing how close we were.”
The rather heartless side of this all — which is a stark contrast to the camaraderie built by the players — is that the Islanders remain one puzzle piece away from completing a legitimate championship puzzle. A fact that ultimately wasn’t lost on head coach Barry Trotz.
“It’s just a lot of pain because they gave their all. There are some guys playing that are beat up, worn out, hurt, and they just keep going,” Trotz said. “There’s really a bond between all the players that’s really strong and the disappointing thing is that we didn’t get this game and the group in that room won’t be together again. That’s the lay of the land in the NHL.”
Such changes could come in the form of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac’s uncertain future with the Islanders after they were acquired from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline. Both are unrestricted free agents along with fourth-line engine Casey Cizikas and the veteran blueliner in Greene.
A potential notable departure could also come during the expansion draft as the Seattle Kraken enter the league next season. Early speculation is that defenseman Nick Leddy could be unprotected and picked up.
Only hindsight will be able to tell the full story of just how much longer the Islanders’ championship-contending window will stay open, and that will be the big question addressed this offseason. But Friday night in Tampa and the days that follow finally provide a moment of pause and reflection for a team that relentlessly kept its proverbial noses to the grindstone in the gauntlet that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I wish I could take their pain away,” Trotz, who is looking to add another championship to the 2018 title he won with the Washington Capitals, said. “I’ve had the opportunity to win a Cup and know how that feels. I really wanted that group to feel that as well.”