Three months ago, beneath a cloudless blue sky, Barry Trotz was leaning against a lamppost on the westbound platform of the Garden City train station, explaining how his team had continued to defy expectations. “When we thought we were not as strong,” the Islanders head coach said, “we were actually stronger.”
The turnaround was remarkable, even then. Dumped by former captain John Tavares, who departed to pursue his childhood dreams in free agency, the Isles had been summarily cast aside as a surefire rebuild project, little more than a mishmash of hard workers under the guidance of a first-year—albeit Stanley Cup-winning—bench boss, who spent his early days on the job reassuring players, “We’re going to be okay.”
The prophecy proved more than true. Not since World War I had a team allowed the fewest goals league-wide (2.33 per game) after ranking last in the category during the previous season (3.57). Not since ’83–84 had the Islanders finished with more standings points (103), outpacing Pittsburgh for second place in the Metro Division. And not since ’82–83, the final year of the Al Arbour dynasty, had the Isles so much as swept a playoff series … until they tidily dispatched the Penguins in four games this spring.
“He said we were going to have a good team, and we believed we’d have a good team,” winger Matt Martin said earlier this season. “All the outside predictions really don’t matter.”
The sword cut both ways this week, when those Bunch of Jerks from Carolina bounced the Isles before they could barely blink. It was a stunning end to an equally surprising campaign, highlighted by the inspirational emergence of goalie Robin Lehner and the fortification of a once-porous blue line, one that could result in Trotz winning his second Jack Adams Trophy in four seasons. Only three other NHL teams had ever been swept after sweeping their first-round series. But making history should not diminish what the Isles otherwise accomplished.
“Mixed feelings right now,” Lehner told reporters Friday night after the Hurricanes’ 5-2 win in Game 4 at Raleigh’s PNC Arena. “Obviously it’s tough that the season is done, but you cannot overlook how we played this year. You really can’t. Very proud of this team, very proud of this organization. It’s been a hell of a year.”
Now? On the one hand, uncertainty. Two-thirds of the Isles’ top-nine forwards will need new contracts this summer, including five unrestricted free agents: Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, Valtteri Filppula, Tom Kuhnhackl and, most importantly, captain Anders Lee. Lehner’s bargain deal ($1.5 million) expires as well, but GM Lou Lamoriello will have cap space to burn and needs to address. A scoring winger or several, perhaps? More dynamic talent on the back end?
And yet the future looks as certain as ever. The workmanlike foundation was laid under Trotz, who brought a stingy defensive structure and a meticulous attention to detail. Scoring numbers suffered across the board as a byproduct—supersonic center Mat Barzal, for instance, dipped from 85 points in his Calder Trophy–winning rookie season to 62—but who can argue that the Isles weren’t better off in the long run? “It’s disappointing that we didn’t go further,” Trotz told reporters, a twinge of disappointment in his voice. “But you’ve got to start somewhere.”
If anything, the Islanders were victimized by their own medicine. Under rookie coach Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes checked hard and hardly wavered from their patient style. They received strong netminding from multiple sources—Curtis McElhinney replaced injured starter Petr Mrazek in Game 2—and just enough opportunistic scoring. On the surface, it was a sobering, sudden fall after the thrill of the Pittsburgh series. Then again, such is the weight of high expectations. It sure beats having none of them at all.