The Islanders’ bubble burst on Thursday night, but their very long, very strange trip though the COVID-19-delayed 2019-20 season forever will have a place in franchise lore.
That was of limited consolation to the team and its fans in the aftermath of the Lightning’s 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, giving them a 4-2 series victory and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
But consolation it will be once the pain eases and the accomplishment sinks in.
The Islanders played a franchise-record 22 postseason games, won 13 of them, and gave fans seven weeks of thrills, even if most were many miles and one country removed from the playoff "bubbles" in Toronto and Edmonton.
Asked what his team had shown the hockey world, an emotional captain Anders Lee said, "A lot of pride, character, resiliency. It’s a special group in our room. Until that very last minute, every single one of us believed in each other and in what we were doing and the road we were on.
"Obviously, we came up short, but I think there’s just a huge sense of pride right now in every single one of those guys in our room and everyone involved."
Anthony Cirelli scored the game-winner 13:18 into overtime, the puck sliding seemingly in slow motion behind goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who was brilliant in defeat.
That ended a series in which the favored Lightning often looked like the more talented team yet found the Islanders difficult to shake.
And for a moment early in the overtime, it appeared a Game 7 was in the offing, as Brock Nelson came in on Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on a shorthanded breakaway.
But Vasilevskiy made the save, and the Lightning had their first berth in the Cup Final – against the Stars, starting on Saturday night – since they beat the Rangers in a seven-game conference final five years ago.
To the end, the Islanders showed their mettle, overcoming the loss to injury of a key defender, Adam Pelech, and plugging in 20-year-old Noah Dobson, who acquitted himself well in his playoff debut.
Dobson will be a big part of the franchise’s seemingly bright near future. But there is no telling when the Islanders will come this way again. The last time they were within six victories of a Stanley Cup was 36 years ago.
Coach Barry Trotz viewed the experience as a potential steppingstone. He said he told the team, "I think out of this we’ve learned to go the distance, and the distance is hard. So the growth for our group has been really good. We will see if we can build on that and take the next step."
Trotz spent 18 seasons as a coach in Nashville and Washington before getting out of the second round, en route to winning a Cup with the Capitals in 2018.
"You don’t always do it your first crack at it," he said. "That’s why you have to go back and you have to do it again until you climb that mountain.
"We got fairly close. We can see the mountaintop, but we never got to the mountaintop."
Living in close quarters, away from family and friends, for nearly two months will be a bonding experience that lasts for the players who return next season. The camaraderie certainly seemed to help this time around.
"The amount of love that we have for one another, and the care, you go through this, you make a run like this, you battle for one another, it’s hard to explain a little bit what you do for the guys sitting next to you," Lee said.
"We’re trying to still process it all right now, but I think moving forward, our room, it’s going to be nice to move forward with these guys."
The plan is to make the playoffs again come next spring (or summer). If so, they will have 16 wins to go.