"Just walking through the line, [the Penguins] said so many good things, just that you guys have a really good team here," Islanders defenseman Colin McDonald told ESPN. "You know, I don't think this team has heard that in a long time."
The 4-3 loss that ended the Isles' season was a tough one, but what spectators saw on Saturday night wasn't a losing team -- it was a team on the rise.
"That's one of the few positives you can talk about right now," McDonald said. "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 future looks promising, but the Islanders still have work to do. As quickly as the team's season ended, their next season began. The young team has a good nucleus in Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey. Nonetheless, they have some big decisions to make.
Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Mark Streit are unrestricted free agents who were key in the Islanders' success this season. GM Garth Snow re-signed veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky during the season, but wasn't able to come to an agreement with Streit, who, according to Newsday, was looking for a three-year, $16 million deal.
Given Streit's strong finish, it is unlikely that those numbers will come down before free agency begins on July 5. Then again, perhaps after an exciting and unexpected playoff run, Streit will be more willing to come to terms with a team that may have a big future ahead of them.
Nabokov, on the other hand, despite being a central player for the Islanders this season, allowed 25 goals in the postseason. Arthur Staple of Newsday believes Snow may see who is available for trade or who is on the free-agent market before committing to the soon-to-be 38-year-old goaltender.
Also among decisions to make are unrestricted free agent winger Brad Boyes and restricted free agents Travis Hamonic and Josh Bailey, who Staple believes will return.
The Islanders still have some holes to fill, some of which will be satisfied by incoming prospects like Ryan Strome and Reinhart Griffin. Nonetheless, the team has the assets to make trades. More importantly, however, the team has a newfound respect that is likely to help draw in players.
While the Islanders have work to do and decisions to make, they can also be confident in the fact that they are a team headed in the right direction.