RALEIGH, N.C. — It ended where it started for the Islanders. And in between a season-opening win at Carolina on Oct. 4 and a season-ending loss to the Hurricanes in Game 4 of their second-round series on Friday night came one of the most improbable, pleasant surprises of a campaign in team history.
The immediate disappointment was a 5-2 loss at PNC Arena in which a tremendously played first period was negated by a stinker of a second period in which not-at-fault goalie Robin Lehner was pulled for Thomas Greiss, not that it helped.
“I’ve got mixed feelings right now,” Lehner said after stopping eight of 11 shots before exiting at 3:17 of the second period with the Islanders trailing 3-1. “It’s tough that the season’s done. But you cannot overlook how we played this year, you really can’t.”
The Islanders, who beat the Penguins in four games in the first round and never seemed to regain their stride after a 10-day playoff layoff, became the first NHL team to sweep a best-of-seven series and get swept in the subsequent round since the Sabres in 1993.
It also marked the first time this season that the Islanders, stymied for 2 1⁄2 games by career backup goalie Curtis McElhinney, had lost four straight.
“Extremely disappointed,” Anders Lee said. “It’s a long journey to this point. You work so hard to get into this position and you put yourselves in an opportunity to keep on playing. To have it end like this, it’s hard. There’s a lot of things this year that no one expected us to do, but when you get this far, your expectations change.”
“It stings right now,” center Mathew Barzal added. “I really felt like we had a chance at it [the Stanley Cup] this year. Things lined up for us well. I felt like we had the group to do it.”
McElhinney made 26 saves for the Hurricanes, who will face the winner of the Bruins-Blue Jackets series in the Eastern Conference finals.
This Islanders season will be remembered for the defensive turnaround engineered by coach Barry Trotz, who won the Stanley Cup with the Capitals last season before joining new president and general manager Lou Lamoriello’s effort to turn the Islanders into perennial playoff contenders again.
Lehner, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie and the Masterton Trophy for dedication and perseverance, and Greiss shared the Jennings Trophy as the Islanders allowed a league-low 196 goals.
This after allowing a league-worst 293 goals in 2017-18, the most in the NHL since 2007.
Outside of their own dressing room, little was expected from the Islanders, who had missed the playoffs the previous two seasons and lost captain John Tavares to free agency last July. But they finished second in the Metropolitan Division with 103 points and had home-ice advantage in the playoffs for the first time since 1988.
“There was a lot of doubt about this group, from work ethic to character to just the team itself,” Trotz said. “We made the second round. It’s disappointing we didn’t go further, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
The Hurricanes put Game 4 away early in the second period.
Sebastian Aho pushed Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech off the puck and a wide-open Teuvo Teravainen was fed at the right post to give the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead on the power play at 2:11 of the period.
Greg McKegg, also left open at the crease, made it 3-1 at 3:17, and Trotz used his timeout to switch goalies.
“There were moments where they just found a way, and we couldn’t get that big moment to go our way,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said.
Justin Williams, working his way into the slot, gave the Hurricanes a 4-1 lead at 8:51 of the second period on the second shot Greiss faced.
Andrei Svechnikov made it 5-1 at 15:13 of the third period and Brock Nelson scored the last goal of the Islanders’ season at 18:51.
Barzal’s power-play goal at 2:30 of the first period made it 1-0, but Leo Komarov’s needless roughing penalty on Williams at 4:02 led to Aho’s power-play goal at 4:44 of the first period, with Pelech actually sweeping the puck past Lehner.