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Disappointed Islanders look to future

by John Kreiser

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- There was disappointment in the New York Islanders dressing room Saturday night. But there also was a sense of accomplishment and a feeling there are even better days ahead.

The Islanders' first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007 ended in a heartbeat: Brooks Orpik's point shot found its way past two defenders and tucked under the crossbar 7:49 into overtime, giving the Pittsburgh Penguins a 4-3 victory and six-game triumph in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.

It was a frustrating night for the Islanders, who led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, then had the better chances in overtime before Orpik's seeing-eye shot beat Evgeni Nabokov. The Islanders never trailed during play, but they never could get the two-goal lead that would have given them some breathing room.

The loss stung.

"I'm sure the rest of the playoffs is going to be tough to watch," said Islanders center John Tavares, who opened the scoring 5:36 into the game and has emerged as one of the NHL's top young players. "You get an opportunity, whether it's your first one or not -- you never know how many you're going to get. Once you get in [to the playoffs], you have a great opportunity to make it happen.

"We played right with them in this series. We played really well. We just didn't get the results. They showed they're an experienced team and a team that's been first in our conference or right up there for the past few years. They made the most of their opportunities. We just didn't capitalize when we needed to."

Before the season, few expected the Islanders to end a playoff drought. Two-thirds of the way into the season, there was little sign a playoff trip was in the offing. But New York got hot in April, clinched a playoff berth with two games remaining, and gave the heavily favored Penguins all they could handle with an aggressive forecheck and a host of talented young forwards.

"They're a very good team," relieved Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "They've got a lot of speed. They were aggressive. They gave us a lot to handle."

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said, "They're going to be in a lot of playoffs."

The Islanders pushed the Penguins in four of the six games, winning two and losing the others in overtime. But the difference between the teams was apparent Saturday: The Islanders fought and fought to get a lead, then made a mistake or got a bad bounce and had to dig the puck out of the back of their net.

"They know how to win," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We came up short in the ability to score when we had our chances and on special teams."

The Islanders learned two things during the playoffs: They were able to compete with one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup, and despite all their progress, there's still a lot of work to do to get to the next level.

"It literally could have gone either way," defenseman Travis Hamonic said. "That's the most frustrating thing about it."

Hamonic pointed to the Penguins' experience as a major factor.

"They're an older group over there," he said. "It seems like they know how to hang around in games. We had opportunities to close them out. Tonight we just couldn't get that second goal, the one for that [two-goal] lead that maybe would have given a little bit of a cushion. I think that would have helped.

"In this game in particular, we left it all out there. Bounces are going to happen, and it's unfortunate -- they should have been in our favor."

There was silence for an instant when Orpik's shot hit the back of the net and the Islanders and their fans realized their season was over. But the silence was quickly replaced by roaring cheers from a packed house that had seen playoff hockey return to the Nassau Coliseum. The cheers of "M-V-P!" for Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist, and "Let's Go Islanders!" continued well after the handshake line ended, with the players taking a last tour of the ice and saluting the fans.

"They respect the work ethic and the desperation we played with," Capuano said of the fans' reaction. "They respected that we left it all out there on the ice."

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