There has been a metric ton of speculation around the Islanders since the summer, mostly around one central question: Are they any better today than they were at the final buzzer of the five-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning? Ask them, and they'll tell you they absolutely are.
''[The Lightning series] was frustrating, but you learn from it and you move on,'' Travis Hamonic told reporters at media day on Thursday. ''[To win a playoff series] was good for our team, for our fan base to see that and have an opportunity to win the first one in a long time. It sets our bar and our expectations even higher.''
Whether this club that lost their best two-way forward, Frans Nielsen, one-third of their vaunted fourth line in Matt Martin, and their top line right winger Kyle Okposo, is actually closer to bringing a fifth Stanley Cup to Long Island is up for debate.
We've been over the potential sticking points time and time again. But the Isles are also a determined club, one faced with the looming hockey mortality of some of its core, and that can make for a very dangerous collection of guys.
For players like Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ladd, they're probably on their last contracts of their career, with one more window of opportunity to get themselves another ring. Guys like Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee also have some soul-searching to do. While Nelson's final numbers (26 goals) and Lee's renaissance in the season's second half were encouraging, these are the young core players the Isles need to either step up or step off.
All those dynamics, coupled with what is shaping up to be an intense competition in goal between Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, could be the recipe for elevating their game to another level.
''I think everybody's excited to get on the ice together and start practicing and start the season,'' Boychuk said. ''We've made the playoffs two years in a row, and obviously want to get the third year and do better.''
Whether they will remains to be seen. But the Islanders have now officially moved the goalposts on themselves. No longer will a first round triumph feel like winning it all. They're past moral victories and battle levels.
While the hockey world debates whether they're good enough, the Isles believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are. It's almost time for them to go out and prove it.