The Islanders and their fans had every reason to revel in this moment.
For this isn't some ho-hum achievement, not for a team which missed the playoffs for two seasons after winning a round in 2016 and saw its star player and captain John Tavares leave in free agency, leaving everybody wondering how the Isles would pick up the pieces.
Nine months later, here the Islanders stand with an 'X' next to their name in the standings, punching their ticket to the playoffs at the Coliseum Saturday night with a 5-1 win over a Sabres team which represented the ideal opponent to face in such a clinching scenario, a woeful club offering little resistance. This is the first time the Islanders have clinched a playoff spot in March since 1990, and it's their first time clinching a berth at home in 17 years.
Credit to the players, all of whom knew how big of a loss Tavares was but who had no designs on adopting a woe-is-me attitude, and all of whom bought in to new coach Barry Trotz's style after he came over fresh off winning his first Stanley Cup with the Capitals.
"The strength of this team has been its backbone, not its wishbone," Trotz said after the clincher.
This is an Islanders team that is greater than the sum of its parts, one that adapted quickly to Trotz's grinding, defensive style which, along with terrific goaltending, has helped the Isles go from worst in the league to best in the East in terms of goals allowed. Trotz's presence has been crucial for the development of Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews.
And it was fitting that Robin Lehner was in goal Saturday and got the win, making 31 saves. He was by far the biggest signing by new general manager Lou Lamoriello, one of the best sports executives the New York area has ever seen. After becoming sober, Lehner has thrived in a timeshare with Thomas Greiss after signing a one-year, $1.5 million deal and figures to be their playoff starter.
"Playoffs baby, playoffs! Wow, what a feeling," Lehner said in front of the Coliseum crowd in an MSG TV interview after the game. "Unbelievable year. Best group of guys, great organization, best fans. Most people have doubted us all year. … We'll see what happens."
Lamoriello decided against dealing assets to acquire a scorer at the deadline, but they've gotten just enough. Mathew Barzal has had his ups and downs after winning the Calder Trophy last year, but he has 18 goals and 44 assists in 79 games. New captain Anders Lee secured his third straight 50-point season with an assists on Saturday, Brock Nelson has recorded his first 50-point season and Josh Bailey is one assist away from his third straight 40-assist campaign. Anthony Beauvillier is up to 18 goals after scoring twice on Saturday.
Casey Cizikas has been through it all with the Islanders since debuting in 2012 and hit the 20-goal mark for the first time after grinding for six seasons with Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, back with the Isles this season after a two-year stint with the Maple Leafs.
Trotz has made it all work, and his name was among the chant emanating from the stands Saturday night. The coach appreciated the gesture, but with a smile on his face he requested that the fans cheer the players.
"I'm just that pretty face behind the bench, so chant their names, please," Trotz said.
A division title is still possible, home-ice advantage in the first round within reach. The Islanders will celebrate this unlikely journey to the postseason, but their focus will turn quickly. They have a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, and after the season they've had, surely they'll be asking, "Why not us?"