By VIN A. CHERWOO
AP Sports Writer
Days after being ousted from the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes, Anders Lee and the New York Islanders are still dealing with the stinging disappointment.
“It’s been a bummer of a few days, to be honest,” the Islanders’ captain said Monday at the team’s practice facility in East Meadow, New York. “I think we’re all just feeling it, feeling the loss and coming up short in the series. So we’re all just processing it right now and trying to bring everything together internally and mentally.”
A rough stretch in January in which they lost 10 of 11 games (1-7-3) saw the the Islanders fall five points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, putting their season in danger of spiraling out of the postseason picture for a second straight year after consecutive appearances in the semifinal round of the NHL playoffs.
They made a big trade to bolster the offense by getting Bo Horvat, but had to deal with several injuries, especially star center Mathew Barzal missing the final 23 games. However, they didn’t lose more than three in a row again, won eight of their last 13 games, and got some help to earn a playoff spot with a win in their last game.
“We found ourselves in a tough spot in January, somebody told me 6% or something was the odds to make the playoffs,” center Brock Nelson said. “The belief and the never-quit in this group is one of the bigger positives to take out of it.”
Against the Hurricanes, they suffered three one-goal losses, including the series-ending Game 6, and were victimized by an anemic power play that went 1 for 18 after converting on 15.8% of their chances during the season — better than only Anaheim and Philadelphia.
Despite a disappointing end to their first season under first-year coach Lane Lambert, he has the players’ support.
“Lane did a phenomenal job,” Lee said. “We had a lot of different swings throughout the season, a lot of different things that we had to handle, and he got us to a place that we were playing some of our better hockey down the stretch.”
With seven pending free agents and six more entering the final year of their contracts, president and general manager Lou Lamoriello will have some big decisions to make in the offseason.
“This is part of our business,” Lee said. “Our goal is to get better and grow internally with what we have. Whatever happens in the summer, let’s move forward and go after this thing again. That’s what this is all about. We want to continue to improve each year.”
There were some good things this season. Nelson finished with career highs of 39 assists and 75 points, and his 36 goals were one short of the career-best he set a year ago. Ilya Sorokin had a Vezina Trophy-caliber season, going 31-22-7 with a 2.34 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and six shutouts. Hudson Fasching had 10 goals and nine assists in 49 games after coming in with one goal and two assists in 38 career games over five seasons with Buffalo and Arizona.
Veteran forward Josh Bailey was a healthy scratch for all six games of the first-round series after finishing the season with 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 64 games — matching his lowest numbers in a season he played more than 40 games. Saying it was a “tough season,” the 33-year-old is uncertain about his future. He has a year left on a six-year, $30 million deal he signed in 2018 and knows he could be playing elsewhere next season.
The Islanders have two restricted free agents — Oliver Wahlstrom (seven goals, nine assists in 35 games) and Samuel Bolduc (two goals, one assist in 17 games). The list of unrestricted free agents is longer, led by 38-year-old Zach Parise (21 goals, 13 assists), veteran goalie Semyon Varlamov, defenseman Scott Mayfield and trade-deadline acquisition Pierre Engvall (five goals, four assists in 18 games with Islanders). Fasching was also on this list until signing a two-year deal earlier in the day.
Varlamov, like Bailey, is also uncertain of his future after going 11-9-2 with a 2.70 GAA and .913 save percentage. With Sorokin taking over in goal, the 35-year-old Varlamov’s 22 starts were the fewest since his rookie year with Washington in 2008-09.
“Who knows what this summer will bring,” he said. “I would love to stay with the team. I have a good feeling about this team and the future, and I want to be a part of it.”’
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