WASHINGTON -- You could hear a pin drop in the New York Islanders dressing room Monday night, minutes after their season ended in a 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference First Round series at Verizon Center.
A season that began with so much promise, one the Islanders hoped would provide Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with a proper sendoff before play begins at Barclays Center in Brooklyn this fall, instead ended the same way it has each year since 1993: without a series victory in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Things were supposed to be different this season, starting with the acquisition of goalie Jaroslav Halak from, ironically, the Capitals. The Islanders signed forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin during unrestricted free agency, then landed defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk in trades one week before the season got underway.
"It's a tough feeling," said captain John Tavares, the face of the franchise who didn't have a shot on goal in Game 7. "It's hard to believe it's over. You fight so hard, you put so much into the season, you put so much into the series. You're so close. Game 7, you lose by a goal.
"We're disappointed for [the fans]. I don't think we talked about it a whole lot, but we know what this season meant at the Coliseum and how they responded for us was absolutely tremendous. We couldn't have asked for anything better."
A victory Monday not only would have meant at least two more games at the Coliseum, but a second-round series against the New York Rangers. The memories such a series could have provided now can only be left to the imagination.
"It's obviously disappointing," right wing Kyle Okposo said. "We wanted to play the Rangers really bad at home and we wanted to keep playing more games. We felt like we had enough to raise a banner this year. That's how we felt in the room. It just didn't work out that way."
Boychuk, a warrior from the moment he was acquired from the Boston Bruins, played 25:57 on Monday and did everything in his power to extend the Islanders' season. After he was done speaking with reporters, Boychuk sat at his locker with his head down, trying to cope with the fact that he won't play another game until October.
"It's a tough one to swallow," Boychuk said. "It's definitely a learning experience for everybody in the room. It's not a good feeling right now."
Perhaps things would have gone differently for the Islanders if Travis Hamonic, one of their top defensemen, hadn't sustained an injury in the second-to-last game of the regular season against the Pittsburgh Penguins. To make matters worse, Lubomir Visnovsky went down in Game 4, then Calvin de Haan was lost in Game 5.
New York coach Jack Capuano inserted Matt Donovan and Scott Mayfield into his lineup for Games 6 and 7, a scenario nobody could have possibly envisioned prior to the start of the series.
"I'm not one for excuses, but you take [Hamonic] out of our lineup … I know [Visnovsky] got hurt and we lost some guys on the back end with Calvin de Haan too, but second-to-last game of the year when No. 3 goes down, it's a big loss for your hockey team," Capuano said. "He plays big minutes, a 30-plus point guy on the back end. I'm sure it would have made a difference, but you can't look back."
Capuano, just like everyone else in the organization, knew how important this season was to everyone in what they call "Islanders Country." Fans must now say goodbye to the place that was home to a team that won four straight Stanley Cup championships and 19 consecutive playoff series from 1980-84.
Fort Neverlose will never be home again. A new era in Brooklyn begins in less than six months. If only that talk could have waited just a few more weeks.
"We wanted to get back home," Capuano said. "The theme that they have at the Coliseum with the Jumbotron and the music and the chants, we actually played it before our game. They were definitely in our thoughts. We wanted to get back there. I thought our guys really, really understood how important the season that we had correlated with the fan base and the energy that we built off. I can't thank them enough, and I'm sure the players can't either."
Tavares said, "You use every year as a learning experience. This is not one I will forget [or] any of us will forget. This should really fuel us for next season, and I know for myself this isn't where we wanted to be."