The New York Islanders
' regular season ended the same way it had the previous year — with a shootout victory over a bitter division rival on the final day of the season.
But this time, there was no wild celebration in the Islanders' dressing room. No bear hugs, high-fives or chest bumps. This time, the Islanders had nothing to play for but pride in their final six games of the regular season, leaving everyone in the organization wondering just how far they are from being a contender in the Eastern Conference.
"It's always nice to win, but I don't think it overshadows the fact that there is a lot of disappointment and sadness in our locker room," said forward Richard Park
, one of only two Islanders to play in all 82 games. "We had really high expectations throughout the whole year."
And for much of their injury-plagued season, the Islanders flirted with those expectations.
A total of 42 different players suited up for the Islanders in 2007-08, including five goalies. The Islanders ended the season with 10 players on their injured list; no one else in the NHL had more than six. Four of the club’s top-six defensemen missed 20 or more games, and All-Star goaltender Rick DiPietro
ended the year on the shelf for the second straight time.
The Islanders battled following a seven-game losing streak in late January with a six-game winning streak in mid-February to climb back in the playoff race. But when a patched-up lineup lost six in a row in early March, it became clear there would be no late-season push to make the playoffs and no final-day heroics.
"We always hear that there is nothing to play for," coach Ted Nolan said. "I strongly disagree with that. We always have something to play for. … To just go through the motions isn't the right thing to do, and we never did that, which is a great thing."
Assistant coach Daniel Lacroix
agreed, saying the best evaluation a coach can have is when nothing is on the line.
"That’s when you find out who really wants to win and who just want a paycheck," he said.
In the end, it was the Islanders' inability to replace the goals generated by summer departures Ryan Smyth
, Jason Blake
, Viktor Kozlov
, Alexei Yashin
and Tom Poti
that ultimately cost them a return to the playoffs.
Center Mike Comrie
, signed as a free agent last summer, became the first Islander to lead the club with fewer than 50 points; he had 49 as the Isles finished 29th in the NHL with 194 goals. Fittingly, Comrie sat out the final six games of the season with a hip injury once the Islanders were mathematically eliminated.
"At the start of the year, when we were healthy, we looked like we could compete every night and give ourselves a chance to win," Comrie told Newsday
. "Once you start dealing with those injuries, the offense didn't score as many goals as we would have liked. Our power play needs to be better, needs to be more consistent. We've got great role players and guys who score when we have to. We've got a great goaltender who gives us a chance to win every night."
Comrie played well enough to earn a one-year contract extension, but the same wasn't true for Miroslav Satan
and Ruslan Fedotenko
. Satan, 33, managed just 16 goals, marking the first time in more than 10 years he failed to reach 20. Fedotenko, 29, netted just 16 goals despite an increase in playing time and, like Satan, wasn't offered a contract. Neither was center Josef Vasicek
, who had 16 goals and 35 points.
There were bright spots for the Islanders. Rookie right wing Blake Comeau
scored eight goals in 51 games, and right wing Kyle Okposo
looked like he belonged in the NHL all season by the way he played in the Islanders’ final nine games. Okposo scored his first two NHL goals against Martin Brodeur
and Henrik Lundqvist
"I thought he showed right from his first game what he's made of," said DiPietro, who was never the same after tweaking his hip in the skills competition during All-Star Weekend and wound up needing surgery. "You'd think it might take a while, but Kyle looked like he belonged the moment he stepped on the ice for us. He’s got something special. I'm sure he'll be a big part of this team for a long time."
DiPietro hopes that with a full summer of rehab, he can return in the fall with a new lease on his career, ready to fulfill the promises he made when he signed his 15-year contract two years ago.
"Everyone knows what playing for this franchise means to me, and I'm very excited about a lot of what I saw in the final weeks," said DiPietro. "If you combine the young players who made the most of their opportunity in the last month, and we get players like Brendan Witt
, Chris Campoli
, Jon Sim
and Mike Sillinger
back, we're going to have a very good team."
Comrie agreed, saying he wants to be a part of the Islanders' revitalization.
"When September rolls around, I'm sure there will be a few new faces. But the guys who are going to be back, we all know what we need to do to compete at a higher level," Comrie said. "We didn't come here to lose and not be successful as a group. On the other hand, with the injuries, you see a lot of kids getting an opportunity. I'm sure we'll be able to figure out a lot for next year with the players here now."