The Islanders’ team bus was just departing the hotel for Game 7 against the Lightning on Friday when it came across four, non-playing team members standing on a nearby roof, shirtless, waving flags and cheering them on.
Injured captain Anders Lee was a ringleader of the bare-chested cheerleaders.
"Leadership, there’s no analytic for it," coach Barry Trotz said. "You have it or you don’t. And he has it."
There’s no doubt the Islanders missed Lee’s on-ice contributions after he suffered a season-ending, torn right anterior cruciate ligament on March 11. But Lee maintained his inspirational off-ice presence throughout the playoff run as he made pre-game speeches, read the starting lineups and was as generally fired-up as if he were dressing for the games.
And, in his first public comments since the season-ending injury, Lee said on Sunday as the Islanders conducted exit interviews that he will be ready for the start of training camp in September.
"I’m on track," said Lee, regularly seen on ice working on his own and with the extras. "I was able to do a lot of really good things the last 13, 14 weeks since surgery. We pushed it pretty good and got as far as we could. I’m looking forward to continuing on that path and being ready for camp."
It will be a welcome change after he had to mentally accept that he would not be part of the Islanders’ playoff push.
The Islanders lost Game 7, 1-0, in Tampa, Florida, as the Lightning eliminated them one round short of the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.
"It was a really tough thing to have to deal with in a year where we’ve been building for this kind of thing for a long time and I think we had a group that we knew what we were capable of," Lee said. "Getting hurt is pretty tough. From the onset, I think I had a really good mindset of what I wanted to do, not only in terms of my rehab but just within the room and being involved as I could.
"I definitely had to take a different approach in the sense of accepting what had gone on and embracing this new challenge of trying to still be who I wanted to be throughout all of this and not have the injury take over."
Lee, who had 12 goals and seven assists in 27 games, was injured when the Devils’ Pavel Zacha fell over his extended right leg. Lee remained on the ice in obvious pain but was hopeful the injury wasn’t as serious as he first feared by the time he got to the Islanders’ dressing room.
Instead, the Islanders were deprived of their top-line left wing – Leo Komarov, who shares Lee’s grit but without the offensive skills, eventually assumed the role – and a net-front presence on the power play.
"I felt it happen and I didn’t really understand," Lee said. "It’s painful at first and then it kind of goes away. By the time I got back to the room, I had a little bit of hope that it wasn’t as serious as it was. But you get checked out, the doctor doesn’t like the way your knee feels and you go for an MRI. You try to just hope that it’s not what it really is. You try not to believe it until you’re forced to deal with it.
"I knew it was going to be hard," Lee added. "You just want to be out there with the guys. I’m looking forward to the fall and getting back out there."