Tuesday night the New York Islanders clinched a playoff spot for the second consecutive season and the third time in four seasons, statements that could last be made in 2003-04 and 2006-07, respectively.
With a break between games during this hectic final week, today presents a chance to truly appreciate that fact. The playoffs. They're a big deal.
The latter team had Jason Blake, Miroslav Satan, Mike Sillinger and Viktor Kozlov as its top scorers. The former was led by Trent Hunter, Oleg Kvasha, Mariusz Czerkawski and Blake.
The Islanders have made mistakes on and off the ice, and in the owner's box, over the years (most teams do), and we have debated them passionately (every fanbase does). Expectations have rightly been raised, patience has been shortened, and after all Isles fans have been through, simply making the playoffs -- or simply winning a round for the first time since 1993 -- is in no way enough reward for the decades of penance. (Even if some of that was dues paid after the fact for the dynasty, it's...well we're getting too sports-religious here.)
The rebuild and the relocation were long, arduous processes, and John Tavares is now 25; fans have good reasons for no longer wanting to see baby steps forward.
Yet while the frame through which most view the 2015-16 season is one that demands building upon rather than regressing from last season, it's worth noting the accomplishment here: The Isles went virtually wire to wire in playoff position. Unlike most teams in an NHL season, there was never a moment where it looked like things were truly cratering. The Islanders' new "average" is "makes playoffs in uninspiring way." The baseline has been raised, and when you look back at how April has felt during most of the last decade, that's a good thing.
Ask the fanbases of at least 20 other franchises, it's no small thing.
A Dream Grows in Brooklyn
Perhaps as significant, in the grand scheme of those who have lived with this team through more than the time it takes to complete a dynasty, is the fact the playoffs will not be in Kansas City, or Quebec, or Seattle.
Complaints about the ice, the seating angles, the obstructed view section, the scoreboard (really?), the commute's effect on players, the marketing guru who would paint all of Brooklyn black (really)...all of these accompanied the Islanders' first season in Brooklyn.
So too did a home record that is 25-10-4, with two more regular season home appreciations to go.
For the roster too this season represents a turning point, with pending free agents and one defensive stalwart who could be gone, a coach whose job is likely (some would say finally) on the line, and more promising prospects knocking on the door to force management's hand.
But the Isles closed out the Nassau Coliseum with a playoff win and their first season in Brooklyn ends with playoffs too. It's been rocky, but the worst case outside media loved to trumpet has been avoided, and soundly.
Playoffs: Manufactured Adrenaline? Yes Please.
Playoffs, as a concept, are kind of absurd. Declaring a "champion" based on a two-month, 16-team tournament after a team like the Capitals bludgeoned the 30-team field during six months and 82 games is a little disingenuous. But we like shiny things and dramatic endings, and that President's Trophy is so yesterday, so unsexy that the superstitious players who are the best in the world at their profession won't even touch it lest it invite hockey gods to smite them.
Oooh, but playoffs! Elimination games! Joy and tears! North America is nearly alone in emphasizing playoff champions when most big sports leagues in the world reward the team that, you know, was dominant all season long. "Top of the table" and all that.
But try telling that to a billionaire sports owner or the guy in the Tuesday night huff-and-puff rec hockey league. Once the playoffs and its elimination format arrive, it's on. The adrenaline goes all day before the game. Being at the real job the next day is either miserable or an extended cloud nine depending on how the previous night's playoff game went.
This applies to the NHL or to a 10-week rec league; the allure of playoffs is that great.
So Pleased to Let You Hurt Me
Which is to say, this is a special time of year. It's designed that way. It's made so that you feel ecstatic when your team is there even though you know the odds -- for every team -- are that it will end in crushing disappointment.
In a way that makes the Islanders' failure this year to take "the next step" in their on-ice play all the more aggravating; it feels like they're setting us up for disappointment even before the playoff dance begins.
But they are here. They are part of it.
Regardless of how the final week and the first round turns out, are the Islanders in a new era that should only go upward from here? Are we allowed to enjoy, at least for today and maybe next Monday, the fact they're here again? Can we pause and appreciate the fact that there was rarely a moment this season where a playoff appearance was in doubt?
Yes, yes, yes.
Tomorrow: Back to lineup/breakout/coachspeak/goal song grumbling...