The Islanders navigated two COVID-19-impacted seasons, playing in postseason bubbles after a lengthy layoff, then playing at Nassau Coliseum, first without fans but then with attendance steadily increasing. There was daily testing and strict guidelines on social interactions both at home and on the road.
Each year, the Lightning kept them one round short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984.
Now, there will be a shorter-than-usual offseason before training camp opens in mid-September. But the Islanders and the rest of the NHL can look forward to a full 82-game season in 2021-22 season, played in front of full capacity — or close to it — crowds in the usual October-to-June window.
"It’s a change that we’re all kind of looking forward to," Jordan Eberle said on Sunday as the Islanders conducted their exit interviews. "Not just hockey, but in the world in general. Just being able to go out on the road and have dinner with the guys. I think you saw things starting to transition to normalcy toward the end of the year, which was nice."
The Islanders, after a decades-long odyssey to secure a modern home to generate the necessary revenue, will have even more organizational stability next season — and the seasons to come — as the $1.2 billion UBS Arena at Belmont Park is targeted to open in November.
"I think Belmont should be refreshing," coach Barry Trotz said. "It’s got to be exciting. It’s a fantastic facility, a fantastic location. I’m guessing, from my experience, we’ll probably start on the road a little bit and probably open a little later at Belmont just to give a cushion with construction.
"We’ll have to be ready for it," Trotz added. "Hopefully, we take it as a real positive. Things are opening up. That should energize not only myself but the players and the fan base. Right now, we’re feeling disappointed [after being eliminated]. But we feel there’s momentum in terms of organizationally."
There are still some lingering pandemic-related concerns heading into next season. Notably, the NHL re-aligned last season to complete an all-divisional-play, 56-game regular season that cut down on travel. All seven Canadian teams played in one division and the Canadian government still has not fully eased the restrictions for U.S. teams or citizens to enter that country.
Then, there’s the compact offseason.
"It’s hard, physically and mentally," Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who underwent surgery on his hand on Monday, said of the Islanders’ lengthy playoff run. "It drains a lot out of you. I think everyone’s going to probably need some time just to disconnect a little bit with hockey.
"But, knowing that group of guys, the character there is and how competitive everyone is, I know everyone is going to show and just want more again," Pageau added. "We were right there, we could taste it almost. It’s something in us that we always want more. I’m sure that will be the goal set next year to make it even further."
Trotz said even just having July and August off should be enough time for his players to get adequate rest and recovery.
"It’ll be more the emotional thing," Trotz said. "Can you get it cranked up to do another 82 games? It’ll be strange to play 82 games."
Strange because everything once taken for granted as normal has been disrupted.
"It’s been a tough year for everyone," defenseman Scott Mayfield said. "But I think everyone’s just ready for things to open up. I think when the fans were let back in, they showed that. They brought the noise. They were happy to get in there and we’re happy about that so, yeah, next year will be better."