WASHINGTON - The disappointment was etched on every face in the visitors' dressing room Monday night. Not just for the end of a season and the end of Nassau Coliseum after a 2-1 loss to the Capitals in Game 7, but also for the way the Islanders went out.
"We can all agree it wasn't our best game tonight," said goalie Jaroslav Halak, who single-handedly kept the Islanders close and then tied into the latter half of the third period.
But a five-skater brain cramp allowed Capitals rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov to walk off the side wall in the Islanders' zone, cruise through a very empty slot, get Halak down and snap the winner into the top corner with 7:18 to go, snapping a 1-1 tie.
The Islanders mustered only one shot on goal after that, emblematic of perhaps their worst offensive outing of the entire season. They managed only 11 total shots on Braden Holtby, including Frans Nielsen's changeup that snuck through Holtby's pads to tie the score 3:13 into the third.
The Isles even had a power play with 2:54 to go and were unable to keep the puck in the Washington zone, much less get a shot off. Jack Capuano pulled Halak with a minute to play, but again the Islanders got nothing through to Holtby. Only 11 of their 49 shot attempts were on net in the biggest game of the season.
John Tavares didn't register a shot attempt. "We just didn't skate," he said. "It seemed like we didn't want to make a mistake. All three zones, we weren't aggressive enough . . . That said, it was still 1-1 with 10 minutes to go."
And that was due entirely to Halak, who had 24 saves and earned every single one of them. From the opening faceoff until the end of the second period, it seemed the puck was magnetically pinned inside the Isles' blue line, where the Caps were cycling below the hash marks and utilizing their defensemen to jump into the cycle, further confounding the Isles' defensive structure.
But only Joel Ward's stuffed rebound that trickled under Halak with 1:25 left in the second dented the scoreboard.
"[Halak] kept us in a game we probably had no business being in," Cal Clutterbuck said. "He was great."
At 1-1 six minutes into the third period, Halak made a miraculous stop on Jay Beagle after a bad carom off the end glass left Beagle with the puck and Halak scrambling to get back in the net. He got the shot with his right pad and his blocker, the sort of eye-popping stop that could make one think these Isles somehow could pull out one of their poorest games of the season.
"I thought we were going to go down and score after that," Halak said. "It's too bad."
Instead, it was a bad breakdown in the Islanders' end. Kuznetsov spun away from Nielsen and found an ocean of space, with Johnny Boychuk and Scott Mayfield occupied and Isles forwards Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome sticking close to the point men. "I can't get beat off the wall like that," Nielsen said in a hushed voice. "I don't know what it is. We didn't play the way we can."
Still, there was time for the Islanders. Kyle Okposo had a golden chance from the high slot with five minutes left but missed the net high and wide. The power-play chance went for naught, leaving them 0-for-14 on power plays for the series.
So there will be no conference semifinal duel with the Rangers, no more games at the storied Coliseum despite a raucous Game 6 win Saturday. It's the end of an era and the end of a season that, while a big step forward, felt as if it had more to offer.
"We wanted to play the Rangers real bad, keep playing more games in our building," Okposo said. "We felt like we had enough to raise a banner this year. It just didn't work out that way. This is going to be on our minds all summer."