Barry Trotz said he makes no excuses for his Islanders’ subpar performance this season, but at the same time he feels for his players — especially the veterans.
On Tuesday, he called it "a mentally crushing year so far," the latest example being Monday night’s 5-4 loss to the Avalanche, in which the Islanders gave up four third-period goals to fall behind 5-1 before a failed late rally.
It was a tidy reflection of the season as a whole: The spirit was there, but the victory was not.
"The group is a proud group," the coach said after a rare practice in a stretch loaded with games. "They’re good people, and I hate to see our guys that have been around a long time, who care so much, [go through this].
"We want to do better, but it’s been a very mentally crushing year so far. This group has ground really hard for two years. A little more than that, actually. Since I got here, I’ve demanded a lot."
Barring a shocking late turnaround Trotz will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14 with the Predators and is in danger of his first sub.-500 record in a full 82-game season since 2002-03.
For now, all the Islanders can do is rely on the on- and off-ice leadership that helped them reach consecutive NHL semifinals to get them through these last 29 games with as much dignity as possible.
"There is a lot of pride in putting this logo on and representing it the right way," Matt Martin said. "Obviously, it hasn’t gone the way we want it to or the way we expected it to, and that’s pretty disappointing. But we’re still not a group of guys that are just going to roll over and quit."
There was no shame in losing to the powerful Avalanche, but Martin noted the Islanders had grown accustomed in recent seasons to winning games of that sort — when they were not at their best but had managed to take a 1-1 tie into the third period. Not this time.
Trotz said he recently spoke to Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who recalled when his team reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, then the conference finals in 2016, and failed to reach the playoffs altogether in 2016-17.
Tampa Bay regrouped and won the Cup each of the past two seasons, eliminating the Islanders both times.
"He said no matter which way they turned, it just seemed to blow up in their face," Trotz said Cooper told him of the 2016-17 season. "We’ve had a lot of that. There’s no excuses. It just happened. It hasn’t been a great season for us.
"But I can assure you that the guys in that room care a lot . . . [Monday night] wasn’t one or our best efforts. I’m sure they’re going to respond, like they always do."
Note & quotes: D Zdeno Chara practiced fully and Trotz said he is "pretty close" and could play Thursday against Columbus . . . C Mathew Barzal did not practice, but Trotz said Barzal did skate on Tuesday and remains day-to-day.