RALEIGH, N.C. -- News of the New York Islanders' return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs took a couple of minutes to spread around the locker room Tuesday at PNC Arena.
The Islanders battled back to tie their game with the Carolina Hurricanes three times, only to lose 4-3 in a shootout. Until that point, many of New York’s players had been hoping for a win, coupled with the Winnipeg Jets earning one point or less in their game against the Washington Capitals.
As it turned out, the Islanders' single point and the Jets’ loss also added up to a playoff berth, the first for the franchise since 2006-07. The celebrations that followed were subdued, mostly fist bumps and smiles.
"I've never felt better to lose a game," forward Frans Nielsen said. "(Islanders general manager) Garth Snow has been patient with us, even missing the playoffs. He believed we had the core in here to take us to the postseason. He went out and found some good pieces this summer, like (Lubomir) Visnovsky and those kind of guys to build onto it, so we've got it now. It's fun."
Indeed, the Islanders’ core is young. In fact, only defenseman Radek Martinek has appeared in an Islanders’ playoff game, dating back to 2003-04. But New York will have a playoff-tested goaltender when it reaches the first round. Evgeni Nabokov appeared in the playoffs eight times for the San Jose Sharks, so he knows what the team is facing.
"It brings us a chance. It brings us excitement. It's what we play for," said Nabokov, who stopped 29 shots in the loss. "It's new for a lot of guys, but maybe that's a good thing. It's quite an accomplishment for the organization, but we don't want to stop. We want to keep moving up in the standings. We want to continue to work and see where we end up."
With two games remaining, New York could still improve on sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Toronto Maple Leafs are one point ahead in fifth place and have three games remaining. The players haven't lost sight of that possibility.
"We're going to enjoy this one for the night, but we also know what lies ahead," said Josh Bailey, who scored the club’s second goal on a rebound, his 11th in 36 games. "Two more huge games for us. We want to finish as high up in the standings as possible."
The Islanders posted the first five shots of the game, but the Hurricanes took a 1-0 lead when Nabokov misplayed a low wrist shot. Hurricanes forward Alexander Semin finished a give-and-go with Eric Staal, sending a bad-angle shot through Nabokov's pads.
New York forward Brad Boyes answered quickly, tying the game when he used his skate to re-direct Mark Streit's pass from the top of the right circle past Dan Ellis.
Carolina redirected a shot of its own to claim a 2-1 lead. Jay Harrison lofted a shot from the point that was headed wide, but Jordan Staal drew the puck back on net, getting a tip-in goal for his 10th of the season. Staal started the play by creating a turnover behind the Islanders’ net.
"We're starting to find our identity, and that's important going into next year," Ellis said. "For us to come up with big games against teams that are going to be in our division next year, it was a great effort. We really started to get our work boots on, play a smarter brand of hockey and we did really well tonight and got a big win."
The Islanders broke through in a close-checking second period to tie the game on a goal by Bailey. After Nielsen won a draw in the neutral zone, Kyle Okposo stickhandled through the Carolina defense to put a shot on goal. Bailey cleaned up the rebound for his 11th of the season.
The Hurricanes took their third lead of the game late in the period. After the Islanders' Keith Aucoin overskated the puck behind his net, Tuomo Ruutu's centering pass deflected off Jordan Staal and on to the waiting stick of Patrick Dwyer, who snapped a shot past Nabokov.
John Tavares scored with 1:01 remaining in regulation to tie the game at 3-3, the third time New York overcame a one-goal deficit. Riley Nash and Jeff Skinner scored in the shootout for Carolina, but the Islanders picked up the point they needed. They are 8-0-3 in their past 11 games.
Just one month earlier, reaching the playoffs at all seemed unlikely. After a March 22 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins -- New York's third straight -- the Islanders found themselves 12th in the conference with a 13-15-3 mark. Since then, they have earned points in 14 of 15 games (11-1-3). Even the coach couldn't put a finger on exactly what changed.
"That's a good question," Jack Capuano said. "There's a lot of teams that go through that. You wish you had the answer. But you know what? It's about the guys believing in each other. They play within the framework of hockey that we need to play and they get rewarded for it."
Tavares, the centerpiece of the franchise, couldn't say for sure why the team has made such a dramatic turnaround, either.
"It's hard to pick what changed things for us, but we got our game going and got contributions from everybody and started to figure out what it's going to take to win," said Tavares, who will make his first playoff appearance after being selected No. 1 in the 2009 NHL Draft. "Sometimes it takes understanding success and learning how to handle it. In the second half, we finally got that under our belts. The patience was there. I think we all knew what a great opportunity we had here with this young group of guys, and we've all committed to be here. It's nice to have it come together this season."
Capuano is in his third season with the Islanders, after taking over the team early in the 2010-11 season. Like so many of his players, this will be his first trip to the postseason -- but he wasn't about to bask in the success.
"It has nothing to do with me," he said. "The guys battled hard all year. We didn't start off great this season. They showed a lot of will and sacrifice and they deserve it. Most importantly, our fans back home, they stuck with us. They haven't seen playoff hockey in a while. They're very passionate, so that's great."
Matt Moulson is another Islander who will play in the postseason for the first time. Now in his fourth year, he has helped build the Islanders into a contender with three 30-goal seasons.
"It's something we talked about in the summer, and at the beginning of the year," Moulson said. "We finally achieved that goal. But this is the first step."
That message was exactly what Capuano wanted to make clear: the journey is just beginning.
"They should be excited that they're there," the Islanders’ coach said. "But we have two games left. Details and habits are everything. If guys think they are going to get away from the details and habits, quite frankly, they're not going to play."
His words were likely meant as a reminder rather than a warning. After all, these Islanders had accomplished something almost unimaginable a month ago. They did it with a stretch of hockey that demonstrates they know what it takes to sustain success.
Or, as Bailey put it: "Winning is fun, when you get that feeling and you start believing."