The Islanders Restore Pride Despite Being Eliminated By Pens In Game Six

The New York Islanders lost 4-3 in overtime last night to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins, thus ending their run in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins took the series in six games, winning the last battle on Coliseum ice in front of a sold out crowd of Islanders fans that continued to give their home team a standing ovation despite being eliminated (Photo Credit: MikeL's Photos/Flickr).

"It's exciting to play in a building like this. It's a lot of fun. In my opinion, we're probably the loudest arena in the league now," said Matt Martin after the game.

"The fans were unbelievable through the end of the season there in the last five home games and all through the playoffs. They were a big factor in the way we played at home down the stretch. It makes a huge difference for us. People don't realize it but it gives you a little extra boost, a little extra energy when the crowd goes nuts like that. You definitely want to do something exciting."

And the Islanders did do plenty of exciting things on home ice. Their fan base was treated to two overtime playoff games as well as a 6-4 win. But several key factors played into the Islanders losing in the first round of the playoffs and allowing the top seeded Penguins to advance to the second round. Goaltending, inexperience and an inability to find a two-goal cushion in game six despite throwing 38 shots at Tomas Vokoun.

But despite only getting a small taste of playoff action, the Islanders know they had a very successful season and have a bright future going forward.

"I don't think we're looking at it that way right now," continued Martin after the game, "but we did play well. Obviously the first game we were disappointed. We played well for most of game five other than ten minutes where they took the 3-0 lead, but it's tough. We worked hard in here. Our fan base was great through the playoffs. We wish we would have had a better fate. It's the way it goes. We got to get ready for next season and hope to go farther. This was a first taste of it for a lot of us and I think we're excited about the future."

This team should be excited, and so should the fans. They were predicted to fall out of the playoff picture for the umpteenth time in a row but managed to defy the critics and give the best team in the Eastern Conference a real battle.

Possibly the most rewarding aspect is that this team has basically been the same group of players for the past three to four years. They have earned respect from the league without help from superstar free agents or trades; they have done it on their own.

"I know it's kind of cliché but we are like a family in here," added Martin. "We've grown together. This isn't a team that goes through a lot of free agents. A lot of people haven't wanted to come here in the past. We've taken a lot of heat over the last three years that I've been here. A lot of criticism in the media. They've kind of looked at us as a laughing stock and throughout this series we showed we could play with anyone. We're excited about the future. We think we have something special here."

Defenseman Travis Hamonic, who took on the responsibility of battling Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby throughout the series like a veteran, felt similarly to Martin despite the first round exit (douglasgallery30/Flickr).

"I think that as a group we've accomplished a lot this year. It's a double edged sword, it's kind of weird for me to be saying that when we get bounced in the first round of the playoffs, but right from the start of the season I think everyone wrote us off. No one even thought that we would be here at all and even at the start of the playoffs everyone thought it would just be 4-0. I think we really did a good job, we threw everything we possibly could have at them. My opinion, this series could have gone either way.

"As a group, maybe people are starting to take notice that we have something pretty special here. I touched on it earlier, but it's a privilege to be in this dressing room and I think the common theme in this room is everyone feels that."

The Islanders would get an early 1-0 lead from John Tavares after Josh Bailey and Matt Carkner executed a textbook cycling play behind the Penguins net at the 5:36 mark of the first period. But Jarome Iginla would tie it just about two minutes later after Crosby flew up the middle and threw the puck to the net after receiving a pass from Paul Martin in the neutral zone.

But once again, the Islanders would take the lead going into the second period after the third line finished a tic-tac-toe passing play in front of the Penguins net.  Michael Grabner would win the battle in the corner for the puck and dish a pass out to Keith Aucoin. Without hesitation, Aucoin would one-time the pass to Colin McDonald, who snuck out from the side of the Pens net and redirect the puck behind the goal line with only 47 seconds remaining in the period.

Special teams would end up playing a major factor in the outcome of the game as the Islanders would receive three power plays in the second period and fail to connect on each one. Despite outshooting the Penguins 16-6, the visiting team would tie the game on a Pascal Dupuis tip in front with assists coming from Joe Vitale and Matt Niskanen.

Like the first period, the Islanders would take the lead very early. Aucoin would steal a pass at the 2:21 mark that would lead to Grabner's first of the post-season. Aucoin held onto the puck just long enough to outwait the sliding Penguins defenseman to find Grabner all alone in front of the Pens crease for an easy wrister that beat Vokoun down low.

The Islanders were on their way to game seven until a Paul Martin slap shot changed everything. With 5:16 left in the hockey game, Martin's blast would inadvertently get redirected by Frans Nielsen's shaft, beating Evgeni Nabokov (17 saves on 21 shots) and tying the hockey game.

To overtime we went with the Islanders getting a few gratuitous bounces early that almost led to the end of the game. But an unlikely Penguins candidate would score the game winning goal and ultimately end the Islanders season. A Brooks Orpik slap shot from the blue line would beat Nabokov to give the Penguins a 4-3 OT win. Tyler Kennedy and Malkin recorded the assists.

As Hamonic stated above, the series lasted longer than most predicted.

Many players on this team stepped above their comfort levels, accepting new challenges and roles that they had not earlier in their careers. Players like Grabner and Frans Nielsen were seen throwing the body every game; Kyle Okposo dropped the gloves and turned the series around the for the Islanders in game two; the fourth line not only crushed opponents along the wall, but found the back of the net as well.

The Islanders gave the Penguins a hard fought battle and proved that they are a team that is on the upswing with a very promising future ahead.

General Manager Garth Snow now faces several questions heading into the off-season. What will he do with Nabokov after his poor playoff performance as he heads to free agency? Brad Boyes and Mark Streit are looking for new contracts as well. What can Snow do in the off-season to provide this team with some elements that were lacking to help them move higher in the standings and win a playoff round?

All of that and more will be answered in the months ahead. But at the very least, this Islanders team gave their fans a reason to believe again. Not one fan in the building booed when Orpik's shot beat Nabokov. Unlike previous first round exits, the home crowd fans stood on their feet and chanted "Let's Go Islanders" for one last time.

Hockey has officially been restored on Long Island. And it should only get better from here.

-Rob McGowan
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