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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

A worthy journey for this season's Islanders

Semyon Varlamov of the Islanders is consoled by

Semyon Varlamov of the Islanders is consoled by Andy Greene after the team's 2-1 overtime loss to the Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, on Thursday night. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

New York has not celebrated a major pro sports championship in 8½ years, so these sorts of day-after wrap-up stories are old hat for fans and sportswriters alike.

But this one is different, because everything about 2020 is different, and the Islanders’ summer to remember was no exception.

To get the normal part out of the way first:

The Islanders and their fans have every right to be proud of their playoff run, and every right to be disappointed that it ended six victories short of a Stanley Cup on Thursday night with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Lightning.

These opportunities are rare, and there is no telling when one will come again. Plus, even though they were the longest shot in the conference finals, the Islanders are a veteran, win-now team with a core group that must keep an eye on its time window.

Now to the rest of the story . . .

First, this stretch should be viewed in context, considering where the sports world – and wider world – was six months ago.

In mid-March, it appeared there might be no more hockey at all this season, then there was, and the Islanders played 22 extra games of it, even if their fans had to watch from afar.

The COVID-19-interrupted journey lasted an astounding 52½ weeks from the time they reported to camp in East Meadow last September until it ended in a virus-protected "bubble" in Edmonton.

Full credit to the NHL for pulling off the logistics safely, and to the Islanders for the sacrifices involved.

The latter hit home when Leo Komarov posted a picture of his newborn son’s feet after the game and wrote how proud he was of his wife with him unable to be present. The baby was born on the afternoon of Game 6.

Second, there was an important subplot to the postseason run, and the Islanders understandably were not shy about leveraging it on MSG Networks’ studio programming and in other not-so-subtle ways.

Hint: For Islanders "home" games in the bubble, the video of national anthem singer Nicole Raviv showed her wearing a hardhat and standing at the construction site of a certain arena located in Elmont.

Yup, for an organization trying to build excitement and sell tickets for UBS Arena, set to open in a year or so, the timing was fantastic.

With key players under contract, young goalie Ilya Sorokin in the wings and a Grade A leadership team in Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz, the Islanders should arrive at UBS a contender after one last season at Nassau Coliseum.

But there is work to be done, as always.

Facing the high-powered Lightning illustrated that the Islanders need more firepower, so adding an elite scorer should be a priority. (They tried to land Artemi Panarin last year, but he took a detour at the Midtown Tunnel.)

And restricted free agent Mathew Barzal’s contract talks will be fascinating. He is as talented as anyone in the league, yet he can be a challenge for coaches.

In Game 6, he turned the puck over thrice on one overtime power play, then was late in getting into position to defend Anthony Cirelli on the game-winner. But his skills make him a keeper.

Those are discussions for another day. On this day, the focus should be on appreciating the past two months for what they were: a hockey bonus, an unexpected gift.

"You don’t always do it your first crack at it," Trotz said after the game. "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."

Sometimes, the climb is reward enough.

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