There is an unmistakable feeling a team gets after it has pulled its goalie, rushes an extra skater onto the ice, scores a last-gasp goal and says, “Whew, at least we got a point out of this.”
That is pretty much how the Islanders felt on Monday.
While the Rangers earned a huge win, the Islanders got a tie in the first hours of open season for NHL free-agent signings. Preserving the status quo was the best the Islanders could hope for once their reported prime target, creative star left winger Artemi Panarin, signed with the Rangers.
Rarely is standing in place as dramatic as the Islanders made it seem Monday. They basically pulled their goalie, ending their short but deep bond with Robin Lehner and signing Semyon Varlamov. (Lehner said Monday that by the time he got back to the Isles with his decision on their offer, they had moved on.)
The floodgates opened at noon and the Islanders had not even had a trickle by 3:45 p.m., one of only three teams not to have signed anyone.
Shortly after that, though, they agreed on a seven-year deal with their own captain, Anders Lee, avoiding the embarrassment of saying goodbye to a captain for a second consecutive July 1 and preventing the day from becoming a total calamity.
“I’m not losing too much sleep over what anyone else is doing,” Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello said Monday night.
Still, the Rangers’ effort probably doesn’t even qualify as rebuilding anymore. Not after they acquired standout defenseman Jacob Trouba and drafted potential star Kaapo Kakko.
“As you do this, you try to do your best to find ways to make it all happen even better, and quicker,” said Rangers president John Davidson, who escaped Columbus just in time to avoid the crash that will come after the loss of Panarin and other top players. “With these things, it’s all falling into place. I’m ecstatic about getting Panarin here to join this group.”
Panarin is an exciting player with an amazing story. He told The Athletic about a childhood in Russian poverty, being raised by grandparents, taking long bus rides to practice as an 8-year-old, wearing skates so big that he had to wear his shoes inside them and using gloves that had been thrown out. He would have been arguably the Isles’ most compelling free-agent signee ever.
Instead, he is the Rangers’ biggest win in the rivalry since the 1994 playoffs. Reports say he accepted less money to play in Manhattan. It makes you wonder if the Islanders will be able to attract a big-time free agent before they move to Belmont, or after.
None of this troubled Lee, who called Monday “a wonderful day” and spoke of Long Island as home. It did not bother Varlamov, who could be a bridge to his friend Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders’ goalie of the future.
Least worried of all was Lamoriello. The Islanders’ GM was in a buoyant mood on a conference call, answering a question about bringing Lee back by saying, “We didn’t bring him back. He never left.”
As for the Rangers, Lamoriello said: “The rivalry will never change, which is great for the area and great for hockey. As far as the ingredients to each team, all I worry about is the New York Islanders.”
And on Panarin, he said, “We’re talking about another team’s player and I prefer not to get into any discussion about that.”
The Rangers are better today than they were Sunday. The Islanders are the same now as then. The best that can be said for them is, like a team that has earned a tie at the end of regulation, they’re still in the game.