The New York Islanders' first season of the Brooklyn era was extinguished Sunday afternoon in Tampa, put out with a 4-0 loss in Game 5 and a 4-1 series defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They finish the year having survived an awkward move to a quirky but ultimately electric building, having slayed one historic franchise demon by winning their first playoff series since 1993, and having seen the last of one or more players who will forever be remembered as part of this rebuild era.
Overall there's no shame in losing to last year's Cup finalist, in a series with two games decided by overtime, against a squad that looks this deadly even without Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. (And if the Lightning get both back next round, look out.)
But they know changes are due if they're to take bigger steps forward and have a better shot of being in the NHL's final four or final two. This squad can say they were close, they were within reaches of victories that would've had them reach Game 5 up 3-1 instead of the other way around. Yet they didn't expand or hold leads in the two overtime losses in Brooklyn. They didn't get to Ben Bishop (who enjoyed yet another series-clinching shutout) nearly enough, never exploited him as they have at times in the past including the first period of Game 1.
For every "almost," ultimately they were no closer in this round than Florida was to defeating them in the previous round. Playoffs are cruel and excruciating and then some, ao there's a reason only eight teams make it past the first round and only a top four make it beyond that. They'll have to do more, and be altered in their construction, to join that select group next year.
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If the Islanders had the better of play in the four previous opening periods of this series, the Lightning knew the best opportunity to extinguish them would be to reverse that, push hard early, and see them choke out under the weight of a 3-1 series deficit and the exhaustion of a season whose end was now in sight.
They did that, and thoroughly. Victor Hedman was a beast all afternoon and scored two of the Lightning's first three goals, his third and fourth of the series. He opened scoring after catching up to the chaos he created and beating Thomas Greiss through a screen with a turnaround shot from the slot at 13:49 of the first. Brian Boyle put the Lightning up 2-0 with 1:18 left in the period.
Wrecking what was left of the Isles' spirit, Hedman made it 3-0 4:22 into the second period, slapping home a power play goal off Johnny Boychuk's leg after a setup from series revelation and prodigal prospect Jonathan Drouin.
In last five series clinching wins for #TBLightning @Benbishop30 has four shutouts, allowed one combined goal.— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) May 8, 2016
As the game wore on, the Lightning let the score and the Islanders' frustration play right into their hands. Lots of keepaway, lots of chipping to areas to exact opportune checks of their own, and lots of patience which they easily afforded after opening up the big 3-0 lead. There were some frustration penalties and scrums late in the second, but nothing much to speak of. The Isles took exception to a clean but hard hit by Ryan Callahan on Nick Leddy where their knees collided, but Leddy was back and the Isles had to kill another penalty (John Tavares with the roughing) for their troubles.
An early third period power play was the Isles' last gasp. No shots hit Ben Bishop there but Tavares hit the post, a cruel echo of his post in Game 4 that might have changed that game's outcome. Just after that power play expired, Johnny Boychuk couldn't lift the puck over a sprawled Bishop to get them on the board after Cal Clutterbuck's shot from the high slot clanged to him off the end glass.
Shortly afterward, before five minutes had elapsed in the third, series MVP and Isles killer Nikita Kucherov drove the fourth dagger in with a breakaway goal to make it 4-0.
Kucherov had another breakaway late in the period, but Greiss stopped that one as Thomas Hickey was whistled for a slash.
The team politely played out the final six minutes or so without incident.
Is this the end for unrestricted free agents Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin (the latter of whom, bizarrely, NBC's talking head between the benches couldn't quit mentioning over the last two games)? And last summer's discreet trade request Travis Hamonic? Plus others as the Isles look to alter their mix and try to nail that next incremental upgrade?
Surely it is for some of them. But we have several weeks to ponder that.