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Islanders’ next step is to go from contender to champion

And so it ends, six wins shy of the Stanley Cup for this Islanders team that went farther than their ancestors had over the last 27 years.

It ends in disappointment, if not despair, with this 2-1 overtime defeat in Game 6 to the Lightning, who will face the Stars in the Cup final that will begin on Saturday, which is when the Islanders had hoped to be playing Game 7.

But no, not after Anthony Cirelli ended the dream at 13:18, scoring from the right porch against the gallant Semyon Varlamov, who faced 48 shots in his signal performance wearing the proud and historic logo.

Now the Islanders exit the bubble. Now the Islanders, two years in a row in the playoffs under the direction of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz — the conference semis last year, the conference finals this year — go into the offseason seeking to bridge the widest gap in pro sports:

That from contender to champion.

“There’s very few teams in any sport that have sort of put a group together and they’ve won a championship right away without, maybe, a little bit of failure along the way,” Trotz said before the contest. “I mean, you look at some of the great dynasties, you like at the dynasties of the Islanders when they won four straight. There was a lot of hardship on the front end before they ran four in a row. The same with the Edmonton dynasty, I look at Detroit of years past, there was a lot of hardship.

Islanders wear dejected expressions after their 2-1 season-ending Game 6 loss to the Lightning.
Islanders wear dejected expressions after their 2-1 season-ending Game 6 loss to the Lightning.NHLI via Getty Images

“And I just came from my former club [in Washington] that had a lot of heartbreak before we broke through. So there are a lot of lessons on the way and in understanding those lessons and being able to deal with them. Those are invaluable for organizations and individuals within your organization.”

These teams referenced by Trotz all stubbed their toes more than once as significant favorites before recharting their course to the top. This has not been that for the Islanders, who have been on the periphery of the conversation for decades, if in the conversation at all. Everyone understands that they are in the conversation now. But try as they might, and coalesce as they did under these unique circumstances, they could not quite cut the line.

It takes time, it takes blood, it takes sweat, and yes, it takes tears, many of which were flowing following this defeat.

“It’s a special group in our room,” said Anders Lee, the captain who was having difficulty keeping himself composed during his postgame Zoom talk. “To the very last minute, every single one of us believed in each other and what we were doing. Obviously, we came up short, but there’s a huge sense of pride right now.”

That pride is well-earned. So is the education they received, like it or not, through this event in which the team took out the Panthers in four in the best-of-five qualifying round before knocking out the Caps in five and the Flyers in seven.

Mat Barzal, the splendid 23-year-old who just could not get his game going through a series of pitched resistance, will feel the pain of this one. The center, whose three attempts were all blocked Thursday, had 32 attempts during the conference finals and hit the net only 12 times, while 18 of his tries were blocked and two missed.

This was one to grow on for No. 13, who made the Supremely Talented Youngster’s Mistake of trying to do too much by himself. But the third-year center should keep this in context. Carolina’s brilliant Sebastian Aho, a year ahead of Barzal, scored one goal in nine playoff games the last two years against the Bruins, eight of which his team lost. This too: Bryan Trottier recorded all of three goals (with 18 assists) in his first 32 postseason matches. It don’t come easy, as Richard Starkey once sang.

But it is not supposed to be easy. And there was nothing easy about this series for Tampa Bay. Indeed, after the 8-2 Game 1 rout, there were just 22 goals scored over the next five games, 12 by the Lightning.

The Islanders left it all out there. They won 13 games in the tournament. They were a Brock Nelson finish on a shorthanded breakaway 2:24 into OT away from forcing a Game 7. They did themselves, the organization, and their fans proud.

“You don’t always do it your first crack at it,” said Trotz. “You have to go back and you have to do it again until you climb that mountain. We got fairly close, we can see the mountaintop, but we never got there.”

So 2019-20 ends for the Islanders, more than a full calendar year after 2019 training camp opened. The trek to the 2020-21 mountaintop begins Friday.

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