A good season for the New York Islanders met an abrupt end on Friday night in Raleigh.
The Islanders were officially eliminated from the postseason at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, who completed a four-game sweep of the Isles with a 5-2 decision at PNC Arena. The four-game sweep marked the Isles first four-game losing streak of the 2018-19 season.
It was a tough way to go for the Islanders, who recorded 103 points during the regular season - their most since the dynasty years - and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2016. The Isles season coincidentally started and ended in Carolina, but in intervening seven months, the Islanders exceeded a lot of expectations. That offered little solace immediately following the handshake line.
"To have it end like this is hard," captain Anders Lee said. "We did a lot of things this year that no one expected us to do. When you get this far, your expectations change. You know how special this group is and how hard we worked for it and what we're capable of. When you don't get to where you want to go it's extremely hard."
Video: CAR 5 vs. NYI 2: Anders Lee
The Islanders gave due credit to the Hurricanes, who held them to five goals - including two at even strength - in the four game-series. They frustrated and smothered the Islanders, much like the Isles had done to the Pittsburgh Penguins in their four-game sweep in the first round.
"Every time we scored they'd come back and get a quick one and kind of slow us down a bit," Barzal said. "It almost felt like we were Pittsburgh in this series. [We] couldn't get a two-goal lead, [we] couldn't get a bounce. Credit to Carolina, they're feeling it right now. They're playing some great hockey. Got to give them credit where credit is due."
Partially due to injuries and partially due to dropping Games 1, 2 and 3, Head Coach Barry Trotz altered his forward lines for Friday's Game 4. Tom Kuhnhackl played alongside Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle, while Lee played with Valtteri Filppula and Anthony Beauvillier. Leo Komarov played alongside Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey, while Michael Dal Colle made his playoff debut slotting in for the injured Cal Clutterbuck. Trotz said he had "two or three" players in the lineup he didn't expect to play on Friday.
Initially, the tinkering looked like it might have sparked the Islanders early, as Barzal's power-play goal gave the Isles a 1-0 lead 2:30 into the game. The lead - the Islanders second of the series - lasted all of 2:14, as Sebastian Aho scored the first of five straight Hurricanes' goals.
The game really turned in the second period. Teuvo Teravainen finished off a tic-tac-toe play and Greg McKegg potted a loose rebound 1:06 apart to make it 3-1 at the 3:17 mark, prompting Trotz to replace Robin Lehner (eight saves) with Thomas Greiss (eight saves), who made his first appearance of the 2019 playoffs.
"We just got punched in the nose and I was looking for a spark," Trotz said. "In this series, goaltending really wasn't the problem, it was more goal scoring."
The goalie change didn't yield the desired result, as Justin Williams made it 4-1 at 8:51, batting a centering feed through Greiss. Andrei Svechnikov scored the fifth goal at 15:13 of the third, while Nelson rounded out the scoring at 18:51.
Video: CAR 5 vs. NYI 2: Robin Lehner
"It's tough that the season is done, but you can't overlook how we played this year," Lehner said. "I'm very proud of this team and very proud of this organization. It's not how we pictured the end of this story, but there are a lot of positive things. The foundation of this team, the future looks really bright for this team, this organization, we just have to keep building."
There was obvious disappointment in the Islanders locker room. The end of any season leaves a sour taste, but the playoffs were an eye-opener and ultimately motivation to first-timers like Barzal, who finished with seven points (2G, 5A) in eight games.
"It obviously stings right now," Barzal said. "I definitely thought we had the group of guys to do it in here and to go all the way. Being a young guy sometimes you're not going to win right away. Sometimes you've got to taste what it's like to lose. You've got to remember this feeling and know how bad you really want it. That can go a long way in my career especially and everyone else also… I definitely loved the intensity of the playoffs and want to be back again soon. Losing in the second round and it really hurting right now I think is really going to help in the future. Just knowing what this feeling feels like."
Video: CAR 5 vs. NYI 2: Mathew Barzal
Trotz with the last word, for now, on his team.
"This group grew," Trotz said. "This group became a resilient group. This group learned the value of accountability, the value of work and they learned the value of predictability and the value of coming to work and being good pros. They were good pros."