New York Hockey: Colin McDonald

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- What a fitting end to the Islanders' 2013 season, that they left the ice with the Nassau Coliseum crowd on its feet -- even after a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 6 -- saluting the team’s stellar effort in its first playoff appearance since 2007.

That should be the lasting image -- not Brooks Orpik’s game winner -- that each player conjures up when looking back on the team’s first-round series against the top-seeded Penguins.

[+] EnlargeNew York Islanders
AP Photo/Kathy WillensThe Islanders should be proud of all they accomplished against the No. 1 seed Penguins.
Making it to the postseason was not enough for the Islanders, who surprised some doubters and captivated the league’s attention with their plucky play, but it should be regarded as a monumental step forward for the organization.

The Islanders couldn’t match Pittsburgh’s depth or experience, but they had the grit, heart and desire in ample supply to push the Penguins in a six-game set.

For so many years, the Islanders have suffered the indignities of the down-trodden and the ridicule that comes with annual bottom-five finishes.

But that perception of the Islanders is bound to change after this.

"We’ve taken a lot of heat in the past three years since I’ve been here, a lot of criticism from the media, people looked at us as a laughingstock," said heart-and-soul grinder Matt Martin, who finished with a game-high 11 hits Saturday night. "Throughout this series, we showed we can play with anyone. We’re excited about the future. We think we have something special here."

The Penguins acknowledged that, too.

After wrapping up their fourth win of the series -- a game that required them to erase three separate one-goal Islanders leads before Orpik’s deciding goal 7:49 into overtime -- they had plenty of respect for the Islanders as they convened at center ice for the customary handshake line.

[+] EnlargeJohn Tavares, Sidney Crosby
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsJohn Tavares said this experience will just serve to motivate the Islanders next season.
"Just walking through the line, they said so many good things, just that you guys have a really good team here. You know, I don’t think this team has heard that in a long time," said rugged forward Colin McDonald, who gave the Isles a 2-1 lead with 37 seconds remaining in the first period. "That’s one of the few positives you can talk about right now. I think as an organization, as players, maybe we gained some respect back, and I’m really glad the fans supported us the way they do. I hope this is just the start, a stepping stone looking ahead to next year."

The Islanders received the requisite secondary scoring Saturday from the likes of McDonald and Michael Grabner to build off John Tavares’ wrist shot from the slot that gave the Isles a 1-0 lead 5:36 into play.

But the Pens showed resilience in a tough road test during which they were outshot 38-21 and superstar Sidney Crosby was held to one point. Each time the Isles gained momentum, the Penguins found a way to even the score. Less than six minutes from the Islanders forcing a winner-takes-all Game 7 in Pittsburgh, Pens defenseman Paul Martin unleashed a one-timer that deflected off Frans Nielsen to knot the score at 3 and send the game into overtime.

"I think we outshot them again today and created a lot of opportunities, but times that we could’ve gone up and taken a bigger lead, we just couldn’t do it," said Tavares, who on Friday was named one of three Hart Memorial Trophy finalists for the league’s annual MVP. "They stayed with it, and maybe that’s why they’re moving on."

"It was every bit of a battle in those six games," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team punched its ticket to a second-round matchup against the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.

Special teams hurt the Islanders and veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov failed to steal a game, but the Penguins were the team to come up with the big plays when it counted.

For that reason, the Islanders will pack up for the offseason, with the hunger to win even more intense now that they know what it takes and how it’s done.

"It’s what I’ll be thinking about all summer," said Tavares, who finished the series with three goals and five points. "It’s what pushes you every day, and you finally get to experience it. We got here and we weren’t satisfied with getting here. I thought we competed real well, we played with them most of the series and dictated the play a lot of the series, too. They just took advantage of most of their opportunities."

The Penguins remained composed throughout the series, keeping doubt at bay even when the Islanders' Cinderella story seemed to be gaining traction. Bylsma made a bold but necessary goaltending change in replacing starter Marc-Andre Fleury with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun after a bafflingly bad performance in Game 4. That move paid dividends as the latter turned away 66 of 69 shots faced in his two starts to close out the series.

And in moving on, Pittsburgh managed to exorcise some demons from last spring’s implosion when the team was upset in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I think we fought it a little bit, that history, and we fought it in different ways," Bylsma said. "But again, we had to be excited to win and not thinking about the past."

The Islanders don’t have that luxury, however. With their first taste of the playoffs also comes their first devastating sense of disappointment.

That won’t abate any time soon.

"Right now, it’s just tough, but in a couple of weeks when we look back at the season, I think we’ll realize we took a big step in the right direction," Nielsen said. "But, we’re definitely not satisfied with that. It’s still a long way to go. It’s not a success until we’ve got that Cup, but I think it’s a step in the right direction."

Islanders grab huge comeback win

February, 15, 2013
John Tavares, Martin BironAnthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports John Tavares scores on former teammate Martin Biron in the shootout to beat the Rangers.
The Islanders needed this one worse.

With every small hiccup that has snowballed into a slump and every skid that has become painstakingly magnified because of a lockout-shortened season, the New York Islanders were a desperate team.

And they played like it.

Teetering precariously on succumbing to an absolute free-fall, the Islanders rallied back from an early 2-0 deficit to beat their New York rivals 4-3 in the shootout and snap a dreadful five-game losing streak.

"It was a great character win, coming back from a five-game losing streak, down 2-0. Great win," said Frans Nielsen, who beat former teammate Martin Biron through the 5-hole to tally the deciding goal in the shootout against the New York Rangers. "And no better place to turn it around, either."

[+] EnlargeKyle Okposo, Evgeni Nabokov
Scott Levy/NHLI/Getty ImagesIslanders' Kyle Okposo and Evgeni Nabokov celebrate the shootout win over the Rangers.
Both Nielsen and John Tavares scored against their former teammate in the shootout to earn the elusive two points that had escaped their reach since their previous win -- two weeks ago. Thursday's victory also marked the first time in nine games the Islanders knocked off the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Trailing 2-0 after a passive first period, the Islanders braced for an earful in the dressing room during intermission and received what they expected.

"We gave it to 'em pretty good," coach Jack Capuano admitted. "But it's not about what you say. … It's work ethic and desperation, and they had it."

The Islanders set a markedly different tone early in the second, employing a hard-checking, high-energy line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald to start the period. That move paid dividends as McDonald found the back of the net to cut the Rangers' lead in half only 29 seconds into play.

"Especially with the way we played in the first period, it was good to get one in right away," McDonald said. "Even if we didn’t score that shift, I was confident we were going to play better. We had a good talk after the first and I thought guys made a good commitment in the second to get to our game."

Tavares and Brad Boyes also chipped in with a goal each to complete a three-goal period and wrest back momentum.

"You could see it in guys' eyes," said goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who finished with 36 saves. "Guys were fired up and they were playing hard for each other. They did a hell of a job."

The Rangers answered back with Carl Hagelin’s power-play marker in the third but the Islanders prevailed in the shootout -- their first of the season.

It was a necessary win to stop the bleeding and salvage some hope that they can put their season back together.

Entering Thursday night's game with the penultimate spot in the East, the Islanders climbed to 12th in the conference with 11 points. A small consolation for the points surrendered during the five-game skid -- all 10 of them -- but a building block to open a two-game homestand against division opponents in the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers.

"Five losses is tough, but I think we understand how important each game is and more and more of what it takes," said Tavares, who extended his goal-scoring streak to four games. "The last couple of games we didn’t play too bad -- we did some good things -- but there were just a lot of times when we just didn't handle the adversity as well."

That, Tavares hopes, is beginning to change.

"We know how to handle it. We’ve shown it before, we’ve all been in the league for a few years now so this was a great test for that, today again, and we stepped up to the challenge. We’ve got to expect more efforts like this."