It’s been over a month since the New York Islanders’ season ended in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference against the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
A whole month for team captain Anders Lee to stew on what was a magical run that ended tantalizingly short of its ultimate goal: The Islanders’ first Stanley Cup since 1983.
“There’s always going to be that sting of not completing what we wanted to do,” Lee said via Zoom Monday morning from his home in Minnesota. “It was still pretty special. We learned a lot, did a lot, and I think that sting and that disappointment will never leave… It’s something we can handle and grow from.”
Under head coach Barry Trotz and Lee’s leadership, the Islanders went from muddling through an egregious slump at the time of the league’s suspension in March to one of the most dangerous teams in the postseason, making the NHL’s final four for the first time since 1993 after a four-month layoff.
“It’ll be a season you’ll never really forget,” Lee said. “From taking 10 months to complete and all the things everyone went through from the shutdown, where we were as a team before that, and how we came out of it and the run we went on.”
“We were rejuvenated and excited to take advantage of the challenge of the playoffs.”
That run included an unprecedented three series victories just to get to the conference final — downing the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers before disposing of the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers.
Those three playoff series victories alone were more than the organization experienced in the previous 26 years combined, falling six wins short of a title.
“I don’t think we felt that distance of those extra six wins was that great. You get to that point in the season and it’s such a fine line,” Lee said. “The separation of these teams — and Tampa was extremely deserving — was tight. Getting to that point and giving yourself that opportunity, the teams we overcame, all the stuff that had to go right, there was a lot of work to get to that point.”
All that work and that winding journey is only adding more motivation for Lee to help get the Islanders over the top.
“It’s a long road regardless and now that we as a group accomplished a decent amount of it, it excites you to get back to that spot, that’s for sure,” he said.
When their 2020-21 season begins, though, remains very much up in the air.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made it known that he wants to start the new season around New Year’s Day, but Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley hinted last week that it could come in February, instead.
The wait has Lee staying in his home state of Minnesota, where he noted he hasn’t spent this much time there in the fall since high school.
“It reminds you a little bit of the shutdown with a future date to get back on the ice,” he said. “Just take your time to recover from the season and jump back into it.”
When that time comes, though, the Islanders will be doing so without Devon Toews — the young defenseman who was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche last week for a pair of draft picks as GM Lou Lamoriello attempts to clear cap space this offseason.
“Anytime you see one of your friends and teammates traded, it sucks, it’s not fun, it’s part of our business,” Lee said. “Devon is a great guy and a great player and you wish him nothing but the best in Colorado.”
“That’s the stuff you don’t look forward to when this time comes. It’s going to be a bummer not having in the room next year.”
Depending on how Lamoriello is able to navigate the market, it may be worth it if the Islanders are able to acquire that elusive first-wing, top-end scorer to boost the team’s timid offense.
Suddenly, it would have the Islanders heading into 2021 as even more legitimate Cup contenders in a pursuit to break a 38-year drought for one of, as Lee describes, the most passionate fan bases in sports.
“That’s the kind of stuff that makes this all so special because we want to do it with everybody, not just the guys in this room, but the Island.”