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Mathew Barzal feels pain of loss for the Islanders' veterans

Mathew Barzal #13 of the Islanders warms up

Mathew Barzal #13 of the Islanders warms up prior to Game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup Semifinals against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on June 25, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. Credit: Getty Images/Mike Carlson

The tears in Mathew Barzal’s eyes told part of the story, and the words that came out of his mouth told another.

Such was the double-whammy of the Islanders’ 1-0 loss to the Lightning on Friday night in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup semifinal in Tampa.

There was the obvious pain of coming so close to a Cup Final, doubly so because the Islanders lost to the same team in the same round the year before.

But then Barzal added to the somber mood when he stated another truth: That he felt worse for his veteran teammates than for himself about falling short, mentioning Andy Greene and Josh Bailey in particular.

Greene is 38. Bailey is only 31, but the Islanders drafted him in 2008, a few weeks after Barzal turned 11.

"It hurts seeing those guys in the locker room afterward, knowing how close we were," Barzal said.

Understandable, given that while this group’s window is far from closed, it is not as open as it used to be.

The Islanders are building something in the sense that ownership, Lou Lamoriello, Barry Trotz and UBS Arena itself have helped earn the franchise respect and attention.

But they are not necessarily building something past the short term, roster-wise. Of the 19 players who appeared in Game 7, 12 will be 30 or older by the opening week of next season.

Some of those players no longer will be Islanders by then, but returning captain Anders Lee will be, and he turns 31 next weekend.

So while the current Rangers, for example, are on a trajectory that should have them peaking around 2022-23, the Islanders already are there.

That hardly means they will not get another crack at this next spring of beyond. The core of the team will be back, and UBS Arena figures to host some good hockey in its inaugural season.

But what about ’22-23? Let’s put it this way: If you had to bet the college fund on the Islanders or Rangers having a higher point total that season, which would you choose? Be honest. Junior’s tuition won’t come cheap, and you will not believe the text book prices.

Hence the pressure to win now, no matter how smart two-time GM of the Year Lamoriello — who is 78, by the way — and Trotz will be in keeping the team competitive.

One more thing about Barzal’s emotional response to Friday’s loss: Trotz repeatedly has praised Barzal for his improved maturity and leadership, but also has made it clear he has more room to grow.

Islanders fans ought to take it as a good sign that their biggest star feels defeat as acutely as they do, likely more so. That is what you want as a fan.

Let us now close with the more cheerful part of our little season-ending essay: True as all of the above may be, those of us who do not work for the team ought to take a step back and appreciate these past three seasons.

In 2018, Lamoriello and Trotz took over a team that had not consistently achieved across 35 years, and then lost John Tavares, one of the best players of the post-dynasty era.

In the three years since Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs, who had pushed out Lamoriello from their front office, the Islanders have advanced in the playoffs three times and the Leafs have not done so once.

In the three years since Trotz left the Capitals in a salary dispute, they, too, have not gotten past the first round.

And the Islanders have done it all while dealing with COVID-19 challenges — like everyone has — and preparing to move into their third home arena in three seasons — which not everyone has done.

For nearly a half-century, the league’s bigger, badder, better-funded bullies kicked ice shavings in the Islanders’ faces. Now the Islanders are the bullies.

Sure, in theory it is the job of professional athletes to win championships, but that involves a rare alchemy of talent, timing and good fortune. The New York area has gone almost a decade without one of those.

On a day-to-day basis, all we can expect of these people is that they win more than they lose, and that they entertain us while doing so. The Islanders of this era aced that metric in a huge way.

New York Sports