In the Islanders’ locker room late Sunday night, as the celebratory wave that crashed through Barclays Center after an epic 2-1, double-overtime Game 6 win that clinched a first-round series victory over the Florida Panthers had finally subsided, it wasn’t about 23 years since the last playoff win or even a single playoff series win, because these guys have bigger ideas than that.
“You’ve got guys in here that aren’t 23 years old,” said defenseman Travis Hamonic, himself just 25.
But there was no mistaking the bedlam inspired by John Tavares’ game-winner at 10:41 of the second overtime had a lot to do with all the years of waiting, wishing and hoping since the Islanders had last won a playoff series in 1993.
That memorable spring began with a series against the Washington Capitals that echoed through this victory over the Panthers, with both series’ featuring three Islanders OT wins, two of them in double overtime. An all-time classic upset of the two-time defending champion Penguins followed.
But what came after that were quiet springs, or playoff trips that ended before they really got started. Until this spring. Until Tavares punched in his second goal of the game to send the Islanders into the second round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
All that frustration erased and unleashed in a glorious frenzy.
“You guys saw the atmosphere out there,” said Hamonic. “It was pretty special. And then at the end they get a chance to really let loose and let ‘er rip. It was pretty deafening. It was awesome.”
“They’ve been dying for this,” said Tavares. “No question a lot of us haven’t been here that long, but some of us have been here a while. Think Fransie’s (Nielsen) the longest, 10 years. Me, seven. I think Kyle’s (Okposo) eight or nine.
“It’s time,” he added. “We had to get over this hump. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go. They deserve it. They’ve waited and they’ve been through some tough times. To be a part of that too, it’s a good feeling.”
If 1993 was a hazy touchstone for many in the locker room, the last few seasons of that playoff drought were not. They were personal. This team was one-and-done in playoff appearances in two of the last three seasons, losing a Game 7 at Washington last year.
Before that, it had been five years without a playoff berth. In the middle of that stretch, the Islanders selected Tavares first overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. He became the centerpiece of a rebuilding effort that continues to evolve. There are only 11 players still remaining from the team that returned to the playoffs in 2013 after a five-year absence. And new faces like Alan Quine, Ryan Pulock, Shane Prince and Thomas Greiss made huge contributions to this series win.
They joined players like Tavares, Nielsen and Okposo, who kept pushing forward when times were tough.
“I don’t know about ’93 or what it means,” said head coach Jack Capuano. “It’s a good feeling for these guys that have paid their dues.”
While a victory this long coming can feel like an end point, the Islanders want to make it the start of something.
For Tavares, one of the best things about winning a playoff series is it means you can just keep playing hockey.
“We want to keep this thing going,” said Tavares. “We’ve got a special group and we believe we can do something special.”