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5 Islanders Game 7 Thoughts: Hot Halak, big Boychuk, flimsy effort, bright beginnings?

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Four reflections on Game 7 and a lament on the officiating to come.

You *better* learn from this.
You *better* learn from this.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I haven't really digested that game yet and not sure when I will. But a few thoughts still fresh in the wake of the Game 7 loss will seem stale later, so here we go...

1. Halak was The Man. Holtby let them back in...and they wasted it.

My biggest fear during this series -- at least before the blueline injuries multiplied -- was that Braden Holtby would steal enough games to win the series. Capitals fans understandably feared Jaroslav Halak based on his past haunting D.C., but that was five years ago. When it went to Game 7, I worried it would be Holtby's turn to be 2010 Halak.

But no! Halak was excellent. He bailed them out, and he bailed himself out when that puck bounced off the boards right to Jay Beagle. The winning goal was an opportunity that simply should not happen (sorry, Frans), and Halak stayed with Kuznetsov as long as possible.

Meanwhile, Holtby was the one who nearly flubbed an amazing team effort away. The goal he conceded to Frans Nielsen was Jake Allen-like. (Memories are fresh.) That should have been the trigger for the Isles to wake up. As Chris said in the recap, Halak deserved better.

2. Johnny Boychuk was the perfect match for Alex Ovechkin.

I know Ovechkin's advanced/shot-generating stats made it look like he had a good but unlucky series, but this is a case where there is more than meets the stat sheet. Way more than in 2010, this was a case of making Ovechkin shoot (and often, shoot wide) from outside.

Putting aside their physical confrontations, which were epic, did you ever worry when Ovechkin streaked down the wing with Boychuk in between him and the net? It was a one-on-one battle that Ovechkin increasingly looked like even he didn't think he could win. Their physical confrontations were wonderful, on both sides, and you can see the respect and competitive fire within each of them.

Nice trade, that Boychuk deal.

3. Not sure what to make of that effort. Young team in a Game 7?

Eleven shots in a Game 7. That is Maple Leafs mid-January-like. Barry Trotz can praise his gameplan on his ride to the next round -- and indeed, the Capitals were excellent -- but this is on the Isles. No team limits the 2014-15 Islanders to 11 freaking shots without the Islanders doing a big chunk of the damage to themselves.

I suspect John Tavares had the pulse of it with this:

"It just seemed like we didn't want to make a mistake," said Islanders captain John Tavares, who did not have a shot on goal. "In all three zones, we just weren't aggressive enough in the first two periods. But in saying that, we were 1-1 with 10 minutes to go. You have to make some plays down the stretch."

A team known for "playing on its toes," one that repeats that mantra of being aggressive and pushing play all season long, and did so in most games this season...couldn't pull that kind of effort with the season and the Coliseum's fate on the line.

I hate the "you have to lose before you win" narrative because it feels too self-fulfilling, but history has shown us over and over again there is something to it. You'd just hope the Isles' initiation "lose before..." series was in 2013.

4. The Isles future is still bright, but...

This series in no way deterred my expectations that the Islanders will be competitive and contending for several seasons to come. (That's all you can ask for today. Cup winners arise from a mass of very good teams.)

But it does feel like a wasted opportunity. A wasted opportunity to create more Coliseum moments, to create one more tilt there with the Rangers, to get over the hump of winning at least one playoff series if not more...and maybe even an amazing run to the final.

In reality, the best-case scenario was never going to happen with the defensive injuries the Isles suffered and, in retrospect, with the power play going 0-for-a-series. But John Tavares is 24, the other kids are in their early 20s, and it's a young man's game today, so I can't help seeing this season's end as a wasted opportunity to take an important step.

(And yet: A memorable season. Impressive efforts more nights than not. Concluding with a classic, fantastic, physically brutal series.)

5. NHL playoff officiating is a disaster.

Note: The rest is a general, not-Isles-specific playoff officiating rant, so move along if this doesn't interest you.

I feel the freedom to complain about this now because Game 7 was clearly a loss due to the Islanders' failings, not because of officiating for even the biggest tinfoiler. So no excuses or sour grapes on that front.

So, in the interest of the game and this league...what the hell is going on with the officiating?

Highlights of Detroit-Tampa Game 6 looked like a head-injury orgy. (Ooh, and there goes Kronwall leaping into another player's skull yet again.) Each time I try to like Alex Ovechkin for being a star who also likes to hit, I see him take another stupid, dangerous run from behind like his crosschecking Thomas Hickey into the boards tonight. He has a form of Matt Cooke's Disease -- just can't help making dangerous hits -- except the league won't give him the Matt Cooke treatment. (To be fair, Cooke ended careers. Ovechkin just endangers them.)

I'm not some newbie fan who doesn't know how "real hockey" is played. I used to cheer and advocate taking advantage of players who committed the hockey sin of not "keeping your head up."

But there are several problems with that today: One, we know better now, and we have a better understanding of the risk and damage of head injuries. Two, the game is faster, bodies are bigger, and actually enforcing obstruction (something I long supported and still do support) means players can't impede opponents looking to target their vulnerable teammates. Three, the league is facing lawsuits from former players for essentially abandoning them and ignoring these health concerns, yet it still acts like the playoffs are open season on brains.

In today's game you can still check hard, check often, and check in a way that wears down your opponent without keeping him from recognizing his grandkids a decade after he retires. You don't need to jeopardize the head.

Yet they're still officiating the playoffs like it's 1992. We're once again getting a blind eye from the Department of Player Safety on playoff headshots. Today I feel like I felt during the Obstruction '90s when I'd read the rulebook on things like "hooking," "interference," and "slashing" and wonder why they were routinely ignored during gameplay.

Now that the teams I'm emotionally attached to are out of the playoffs, I'll enjoy the rest of the postseason like I always do: Riveted by the drama and intensity. But my stomach turns at the unpenalized headshots and the general swallowing of whistles.

It's as if the league thinks it fixed the headshot issue through the past few seasons' enforcement, and so now everything is just...oh, that's just playoffs. But the league's constant restarts in its battle against obstruction show that you cannot let up enforcement, not for a minute, because the players will take every inch you give.