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Islanders overcome 'dark days' of years past

New York advances to second round of playoffs for first time in 23 years

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

NEW YORK -- The demeanor of New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic after the franchise's first series win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1993 said it all.

For Hamonic and a large majority of the Islanders' core, it wasn't about the 23 years. It was about a group that grew together during the toughest of times that featured a handful of bottom-five finishes in the NHL standings and finally blossomed into one that battled its way to the second round of the postseason.

So there was Hamonic, a second-round pick in 2008, standing in front of reporters Sunday following a thrilling 2-1 double-overtime win to eliminate the Florida Panthers in six games, barely having the strength to keep himself composed while his eyes began to water.

Video: Isles' core on winning first playoff series since '93

"It's awesome. I think it means a lot," said Hamonic, who had to work his way back from a lower-body injury late in the regular season to be ready for Game 1. "There's that stat that we hadn't won in whatever. It's awesome. We have an opportunity to keep playing. We know what it's like to be on the other side. They played a [heck] of a series. It was pretty hard-fought. There was a lot of chess-battling, probably more than a lot of people realize. It's awesome. We're excited about the opportunity to move forward. We're confident in our team and the group that we have in here."

It's been a special few weeks for right wing Kyle Okposo, the Islanders' first-round pick a decade ago. Not only did his wife give birth to their son three days before this series got underway, but he finally got to experience the winning side of the traditional postseason handshake. He reflected on the tough times of not making the playoffs, to the devastation he and his teammates felt when they lost Game 7 in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals a year ago.

"It means a lot," Okposo said. "A lot of doubters throughout my whole time here, and deservedly so. But I'm really proud of the way that we responded and the way the last couple of years have gone, losing a Game 7 last year, we had a lot of chances in this series to kind of fold and go away, but we didn't. We kept fighting. I'm extremely proud of this group."

Video: FLA@NYI, Gm6: Tavares on his series-clinching goal

As is center Frans Nielsen, the longest-tenured Islanders player, a third-round pick in 2002 who made his NHL debut four years later. Nielsen admitted it was extra special Sunday considering how the core has been together for seven years.

"It means a ton," Nielsen said. "There's been some tough years for sure, but it was a good feeling. We've got a good team here now. I've been with so many guys here for so many years, it means a lot when you've gone through some lows, and then you finally start feeling that you have a team and you can put it together like this.

"This for sure wasn't easy. We had to fight for it really hard. One of the toughest series I've been a part of. I think we just learned so much from the past years, like what kind of grind it is, and you have to think that it's going to be long and keep grinding them down."

The Islanders received splendid goaltending throughout the series from Thomas Greiss, who joined them as a free agent last July, and some timely goals, none bigger than the one provided by the face of the franchise and the No. 1 pick in 2009, John Tavares, midway through double overtime in Game 6. Tavares also erased a 1-0 deficit in the final minute of the third period.

But when Tavares scored his second goal of the night and fifth of the series, it was, as Tavares put it after the game, "euphoria." There was also some relief that these Islanders finally found a way, and the kind of raw emotion you could see from Hamonic while he spoke about how these players have grown together over the years. It had to be rewarding for general manager Garth Snow, the architect of this group, who continued to add piece by piece and refusing to blow things up after the loss last year in Washington.

"We've gone through some dark days together," left wing Matt Martin said. "There's a big group of us that have been a part of a 25-game losing streak and being the laughingstock of the League. A lot of negative, negative media around us. Just to kind of go through all of this together, we obviously got some key additions last season with (Nick) Leddy and (Johnny) Boychuk, and Greiss was unbelievable in net for us. It feels good to do it together, especially after last season's loss in Game 7. [Snow] and [Jack Capuano] and the coaching staff stuck to their guns and believed in us. We couldn't be happier right now."

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