WASHINGTON - Two years ago, after the Islanders lost what was widely considered a valiant playoff series against the Penguins, Sidney Crosby paused with former Penguin Colin McDonald on the handshake line to say that the Islanders "have a hell of a team."
Those words still hung in the air before, during and after Game 7 against the Capitals Monday night, when they again were on the losing side of the handshakes and again got compliments.
According to coach Jack Capuano, some of the Capitals' top players said after their 2-1 win that they were impressed with the Islanders' game plan and the way it was executed.
That reinforced what had become apparent during the season, when the Islanders proved better than Crosby's Penguins -- having finished ahead of them in the standings and having outlasted them in the playoffs by a few days.
Finally, no one was going to give the Islanders the same benefit of the doubt they received in 2013. Certainly the players weren't going to give themselves a pass. They realized that the game Monday night at Verizon Center was a referendum on their progress. They gave themselves mixed reviews.
Goalie Jaroslav Halak spoke of how proud he was of his team and how much he enjoys being part of it. But he added: "Obviously, we all wanted to go to the second round. We had a goal before the season and we did not accomplish our goal. It comes down to the last game; only one team can go. We didn't have our best game tonight."
John Tavares acknowledged after the morning skate Monday that the locker room had been filled with confident determination even before the acquisition of top defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy -- the occasion that most observers see as the turning point for the 2014-15 Islanders.
"We were excited," the captain said when he was asked to recall his reaction to the two deals, "but you didn't see a huge uproar within our group. We just felt like it's our time really to get to the level where we want to be at, up to our expectations. We had taken a couple steps back last year and everyone felt there were no excuses, with the group we had, why this couldn't be a special season, why this team couldn't grow to where we are now."
Just where they are now is an open question. They still have not won a playoff series since 1993, and they led this one two games to one.
Capuano chose to accentuate the positives.
"We just had a great year," he said. "I'm extremely proud of the guys and the effort no matter who was in the lineup. Unfortunately, we got a little decimated on the back end going into this series."