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Islanders face huge task of going from contender to champion

One mini step closer.

But one large step short.

Seven games this year after six games last year.

Same difference.

A second consecutive loss in the semifinals.

A second consecutive loss to the Lightning.

No chance to return to the Coliseum.

No chance to play for the Stanley Cup following Friday night’s 1-0 elimination loss in Tampa.

The Islanders have beaten four teams over their last two playoff runs. They beat the Capitals and Flyers last year. They beat the Penguins and Bruins this year.

But they have not been able to get by the Lightning, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, who now have earned the chance to defend their title against the Canadiens and Carey Price in a bifurcated final in which the Tampa arena will be packed, but Montreal’s will operate under provincial COVID-related restrictions.

The Islanders were overwhelmed for the most part in this one, but a combination of Semyon Varlamov’s magnificent goaltending and the club’s ability to remain poised under duress kept the score close despite a wide disparity in zone time, shots and scoring chances.

Game 7
The Islanders react to losing Game 7 to the Lightning on Friday night.
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The Lightning’s 1-0 goal came while shorthanded, Yanni Gourde scoring at 1:49 of the second period on a rink-length play begun at the other end by Ryan McDonagh, who was the best skater on the ice not only in this one, but also throughout the series.

At that point, the Islanders’ power play was even for the series, 1-for-17 with a shorthanded goal allowed. The offense was minimal until the final desperate push over the final minute, in which the Islanders stormed the bastille but came up with nothing.

The joyride ended.

Six games last year against Tampa Bay.

Seven games this year.

Same difference.

Another run by the Islanders, who had last the NHL’s final four in consecutive years in 1983 and 1984. Another run that fell short, for the second time in two years going down to the team that has become general manager Lou Lamoriello’s, head coach Barry Trotz’s and the franchise’s white whale.

Herb Brooks’ Smurfs of the early 1980s could not get through the dynastic Islanders. The original Jets of the mid-to-late 1980s could not get through the dynastic Oilers. These Islanders cannot get through the championship Lightning.

They went as far as they could, this team that was offensively challenged enough before captain and top line left wing Anders Lee went down for the with a knee injury in the middle of March.

Lamoriello acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac ahead of the trade deadline and the two emigres from New Jersey did patch a hole or two. Indeed, the trade for Palmieri trumped Boston’s more celebrated acquisition of Taylor Hall, whom the Islanders had under control during their second-round, six-game ouster of the Bruins.

Islanders
The Islanders and Lightning shake hands after Game 7.
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The Islanders took care of Boston after they had taken care of the first-place Penguins, also in six games, after keeping Sidney Crosby in check pretty much throughout the entire series and exploiting every one of netminder Tristan Jarry’s weaknesses.

They came through two rounds for the second straight year, just as the Lightning (and the Golden Knights on the other side of the draw) did. They became one of only three teams, with the Bruins and Avalanche, to have won at least one round in each of the last three tournaments.

They took Game 1 of this round in Tampa and they won Game 4 at the Coliseum, gifting the Old Barn with one of the most stunning — and definitely the most unique — endings in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs: defenseman Ryan Pulock’s last-gasp save of McDonagh’s spin-a-rama in front of an empty net as time expired to preserve the victory.

And they won the potential elimination Game 6 in overtime at the Coliseum on Anthony Beauvillier’s first goal of the series after the Islanders had seemingly been left as roadkill, falling behind 2-0 in the second period while having surrendered 12 consecutive goals.

Games 4 and 6 stand as instant classics, victories that will be remembered for a lifetime.

And victories that will stand as the franchise’s final two ever at the Old Barn off Hempstead Turnpike.

A couple of years ago, the Islanders would have been celebrated for going this far. Last year, also. And while any trip to the final four is worthy of recognition — 27 other teams could not get this far — and while this Islanders team is most worthy in itself, the fact is, they fell short.

Last year, they fell six wins short.

This year, five.

Boy, could they have used Lee on Mathew Barzal’s left side.

These are not urchins anymore. This is no longer the NHL’s Shipwreck Franchise. But they won’t win the Stanley Cup. They won’t win the Stanley Cup, again. The drought has now 38 years, and Lamoriello, Trotz and the Islanders still must bridge the biggest gap in sports.

From contenders to champions.

And the Tampa Bay Lightning are still in the way.