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Bar set higher for Islanders after reaching playoffs

Frans Nielsen of the Islanders skates against the

Frans Nielsen of the Islanders skates against the Ottawa Senators. (March 19, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Islanders are aware of what they accomplished this season. Now that it's over and they finished packing up their belongings Tuesday, they also know what's ahead.

"We've got to realize that what we did down the stretch this year, we have to do it from Day 1 next year and we've got to do it for 82 games,'' Frans Nielsen said Tuesday morning as he and his teammates finished their exit interviews with the coaching staff and general manager Garth Snow before heading out for the offseason. "It only gets tougher from here. Teams are going to be even more prepared for us.''

If the 2012-13 season and the eye-opening, six-game series loss to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals was the Isles' coming-out party, then 2013-14 will be an even stricter test to maintain their status as a team on the rise.

"Everyone thinks, 'Well, the Islanders made the playoffs this year, so they will make it next year, too.' It's not like that,'' said Evgeni Nabokov, one of a handful of unrestricted free agents who may or may not be back next season. "The hardest thing is to stay there. Everybody will know they have to take the Islanders seriously.''

John Tavares didn't exactly emerge as a star this shortened season, he simply elevated his game another level and earned a spot as a Hart Trophy finalist. He also happens to be the Islander who works hardest on his game in the offseason.

Now, after he and his teammates have gotten a taste of playoff hockey, they say their offseason work ethic will be that much better.

"You look at all the work to get where we are now, and it wasn't enough,'' Matt Moulson said. "We need to work harder -- everyone individually, as a team, the staff. There has to be another level reached by the team, by individuals. All that work during the summer, during the season, it might all be for one little bounce that makes a difference in the playoffs. There's a lot of work to do.''

Said Travis Hamonic: "You've got to use it as motivation. When you're spending those long days training and you think, 'I could still be playing in the playoffs right now,' you want to use that as motivation to get better.''

There will be plenty of motivation for the rookies and understudies who filled key roles on this team, as well. Colin McDonald, Brian Strait and Thomas Hickey were three players plucked from the AHL depths of other franchises who earned time and NHL futures this season; Casey Cizikas, an Isles draft pick, earned raves as the energy player who sparked some key moments during the team's run to the postseason.

"I know I'm not a top-six forward,'' Cizikas said. "For me, I want to be that energy guy, the guy who can come out and throw a big hit or score a big goal and have people say, 'He's going to go out and get the other guys going.' It's a good feeling to think I've earned the right to say I belong here.''

And every Islander, with the cheers of the Nassau Coliseum faithful still echoing in their ears three days after the sold-out crowd stood and saluted the team following the crushing overtime loss in Game 6, wants to get back to the playoffs to feel the place rocking once more.

"We heard about how the building could be during the playoffs, but it definitely exceeded my expectations,'' Michael Grabner said. "It was amazing.''

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