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Islanders go home with respect after exit

by John Kreiser

The New York Islanders didn't get what they wanted Saturday night -- their loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series Saturday night ended the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007.

But they did take away something that hadn't been in great supply on Long Island during the past few years: respect.

General manager Garth Snow launched a complete rebuild after the 2007-08 season began a stretch of five consecutive non-playoff seasons. The lack of on-ice success combined with an outdated arena and small crowds for many games led to a franchise that didn't generate a lot of respect around much of the NHL.

An 11-2-4 surge down the stretch enabled the Islanders to end the playoff drought. But they weren't expected to put up much of a fight against the Penguins, the top seed in the East and a team that has dominated them for the past few years.

But after looking nervous and scared while losing 5-0 in Game 1, the Islanders spent most of the rest of the series taking the play to the Penguins. They won two games and lost two others in overtime -- meaning that a couple of bounces here and there and they could have pulled a major upset.

That didn't happen, but what did take place was the revival of what was one of the NHL's most stories franchises 30 years ago.

"We took some big strides as an organization," coach Jack Capuano said. "Not many people gave us a chance to do some of the things we did. Anybody that watched the games, that saw the crowd … I'm sure we've got some respect around the League right now."

They certainly left with the respect of their opponents.

"Going through the [handshake] line, hearing what some of their guys said … 'You guys are a good team,'" said Islanders forward Colin McDonald, a former Penguin. "I don't think a lot of guys around here have heard that in a while."

Another thing they hadn't heard was the kind of noise that filled the Nassau Coliseum during the team's three home games. Although the Islanders were eliminated on Saturday, they left the ice to a roaring ovation, with the full house of 16,170 chanting "Let's Go Islanders" while the players tapped their sticks in recognition.

"The crowd, to do that at the end of the game, at a tough time, I thought that was awesome," McDonald said. "To be acknowledged in a bad situation is something we can hang our hats on."

Defenseman Travis Hamonic agreed that the Islanders gained some respect with both their opponents and their own fans.

"I think as an organization we gained some respect back," Hamonic said. "I was really happy to see the fans support us the way they did, and I hope this is just the start, just a stepping stone to next year."

Center John Tavares, the Islanders' fourth-year center, is coming off a season in which he's one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy as League MVP. He's the face of a franchise that, at long last, looks like it's turning the corner.

"I was really happy to see the fans support us the way they did, and I hope this is just the start, just a stepping stone to next year."
-- Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic

While admitting he'll have a hard time watching the rest of the playoffs, Tavares said getting to the postseason was a valuable step forward for a team with 15 players who had not taken part in a playoff game before this spring.

"I think we're going to learn a lot about what it takes to be in the playoffs, to get to the playoffs," Tavares said. "Hopefully, we're going to understand that it's going to take even more to win a series. It's still tough to take it all in right now. It's just disappointing."

While Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said the Islanders "are going to be in a lot of playoffs," New York's surprising trip to the postseason and their solid showing against the Penguins will present its own challenges next season. Getting to the playoffs once is nice, but Tavares knows the bar has been raised and that his team will be expected to get there again and go further.

"We certainly know we have to come back well-prepared again next season," he said. "We've got a good idea of what brings us success on a consistent basis, and we need more of that. We've got to keep pushing ourselves to get better. That's the only way we're going to achieve our ultimate goal."

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