TAMPA, Fla. - What became strikingly more obvious as the series went along, and was made painfully plain Sunday is that the Islanders simply cannot rely on just one man. Now, at least they will have the chance to rely on two: Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin, who will become the new majority owners on July 1.
It will be up to them to oversee the next phase for a team that needs another gear. Years of losing led to many high draft picks and promises of a dynamic young team on the rise. But when you come right down to it, all the Islanders really have to show for all the poor seasons is John Tavares, and they rose only as high as he could lift them.
In a series that ended with a 4-0 drubbing, the Lightning showed that if an opponent can stop Tavares, it can freeze the Islanders in their tracks. Most of the games in this second-round matchup were close, but the series was not (4-1). And it demonstrated that if you want to consider the Islanders a work in progress, fine. But they need to make much more progress.
“Brutal,” Tavares said in a somber locker room. He had just been held without a goal or an assist for the fourth consecutive game, each one a defeat. “It’s hard to believe it’s over. Obviously, you put a lot into it, and we didn’t do what we set out to do.”
It was hard to keep track of exactly what was over, aside from the season.
To be sure, it was the final game of Charles Wang’s run as majority owner. It might have been the last time that Tavares ever played with Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Matt Martin and Travis Hamonic — the backbone of a group that led the Islanders into respectability and, for the first time in 23 years, into the second round of the playoffs. The first three of those players are eligible for free agency; Hamonic has asked for a trade closer to his western Canada home.
Ledecky and Malkin, who will move up from minority to majority partners, will be in charge of sorting all of that out, along with improving a roster that was not as good as the Lightning’s.
Tampa Bay had enough depth and savvy to withstand the loss of its star and captain, Steven Stamkos (blood clot) — its Tavares, if you will — and one of its better defensemen, Anton Stralman (fractured leg).
“We played a good team,” Jack Capuano said.
The regular-season standings indicated that the Islanders were a good team, too. They had more points than Tampa Bay. But when it really mattered, the young players we have heard so much about for years could not make a difference.
None of them was the equal of Nikita Kucherov, a second-round pick in the 2011 draft who scored his league-leading ninth playoff goal Sunday. For the Islanders, all of the heat landed squarely on Tavares, who last had a point in the second period of Game 1, the last victory of 2015-16.
“I take a lot of responsibility for that, being the captain. I’m counted on for a lot out there. It’s just not good enough,” he said, adding that five minutes after the handshake line, he felt no consolation in having ended the franchise’s playoff series-winning drought. “Expectations are high and we want to go a lot further than just winning the first round.”
Nielsen wants to remain an Islander and is emphatic that the future is going to be better. “Just the talent that’s in here. A lot of guys are still young,” he said in a hushed tone. “Just the fact that we had back-to-back 100-point seasons. You have to be a good team if you do it two years in a row . . . We’re so close. It could have been us winning three out of four. It’s the small things.”
Small things, big things. The past two weeks have proved that the Islanders need to do some different things. It will be up to the two new guys to figure it out.