New LI-fe: Islanders Playoff Run Has Fans Hopeful for Future, Return to Long Island

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Islanders forward Mat Barzal moves in on Carolina defenders (Photo by Adiana Rivera)

Blaring car horns set off to the cadence of “Let’s go, Islanders!” made a long-awaited return to Hempstead Turnpike and Charles Lindbergh Boulevard this April. On Long Island, it’s playoff time once again.

After a season that was preceded with despair over the departure of New York Islanders’ longtime Captain John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team once again defied hockey “experts” dismal expectations. They did so by stringing together a 103-point season, securing the Metropolitan Division’s second playoff spot and home ice for rounds one and two in the process — although “home ice” is a slippery term right now for the Isles.

“I feel as if the fan base is rejuvenated with this return home to the Coliseum and playoff run,” says Farmingdale resident and Islanders diehard fan Brian Tinney.

Of course, the Islanders only played the opening round of the playoffs at NYCB Live, Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, their original home where they won four straight Stanley Cups. When efforts to rebuild the aging arena stalled, the team skated to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2015, where they played round two of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the team’s ownership is in the process of building a new arena that is expected to open in 2021 at Belmont Park in Elmont.

As for the Islanders’ stunning regular season, the National Hockey League saw a resurgence of goaltender Robin Lehner, the fanciest of stick work and scoring from All-Star forward Mat Barzal, and similar offensive magic from forward Jordan Eberle along with other teammates like captain and former Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Anders Lee. In short, this has been the Islanders’ most successful season since 1993.

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Islanders Captain Anders Lee carries the puck across the blue line during the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 26, 2019. (Photo by Joe Nuzzo)

So naturally, diehard fans young and old brought the twice-sold-out coliseum to a fever pitch, waving bright orange rally towels while chanting “YES YES YES!” when the Islanders routed the Pittsburgh Penguins in Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ opening round, continuing on to sweep the perennial bane of the Metropolitan Division.

The quick series was bolstered by physical play and New York promptly answering goals and refusing to be pushed around by the big bad Penguins, a notoriously punishing squad led by captain Sydney Crosby.

All of that was summarized by right wing Josh Bailey’s game-winning overtime goal in Game 1 and forward Anthony Beauvillier’s and Eberle’s relentless attacking and scoring in Game 2. Right winger Leo Kamarov’s physically aggressive play was demonstrated, especially towards fellow Russian and Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin throughout the series, along with a visible resilience from center Brock Nelson and just about the entire squad.

When the Islanders put down the flightless birds for good in a 3-1 series clinching Game 4 victory,  just about all of Long Island let out an even longer and more joyous yell for what truly was the unpredictable performance of a lifetime from the Islanders.

It was more than a feeling of sweet victory for the Isles and the team’s ever so faithful: It was a long-awaited postseason reunion with a venue that, for many, felt like home.

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Islander goaltender Robin Lehner (40) makes a save during the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 26, 2019. Photo by Joe Nuzzo.

Since the Islanders split games between the coliseum and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center while anticipating a new, more permanent home at Belmont Park, this was the first round of playoffs in Nassau County since 2015. That was when the Islanders fell to Barry Trotz’s Washington Capitals in seven games.

Prior to that heartbreak, the last time the Islanders had won a series while playing at the Coliseum was in 1993. Again, the team had faced off against the locally less-than-applauded Pittsburgh Penguins.  

Now with Trotz and his strategy on the Isles bench for the first year, the team not only reclaimed the Coliseum’s “Fort Neverlose” namesake this season, but also had a postseason sweep over an opponent for the first time since the Islanders won a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup in 1983.

Tinney, the Farmingdale fan, has spent many a night at the Coliseum since he was little, seeing one of the Islanders’ most exciting postseason moments firsthand.

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Fans celebrate and Islanders goal against the Hurricanes in game 2. Photo by Adiana Rivera.

“I’ll never forget sitting [in the] last row at the Coliseum when Shawn Bates scored on the penalty shot in Game 4 of the 2001-2002 playoffs against Toronto,” he recalls.

While the Isles fell to the Leafs in seven games that series, the moment Tinney described would still put a smile on any Islanders fan to date.

“I’ve never heard a building so loud in my entire life; It was a complete out-of-body experience,” Tinney continues.

Shawn Bates’ penalty shot was replayed while the score was tied 1-1 in the third period of Game 2 against Pittsburgh. It was just seconds after that and a clip of Herb Brooks’ famous ‘Miracle’ speech when Eberle netted what would be the game winner against Penguins goalie Matt Murray. Bates was watching, cheering from the stands.

Also watching from the stands was a fan new to hockey this season, Andrew Adrian of Jericho. He exhausted an American Express card to see Games 1 and 2 from rinkside, the first playoffs Adrian had ever attended.

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The Nassau Coliseum before game 2. Photo by Alex Mitchell

“The ground was literally shaking for an hour there. I don’t think the cheering and yelling ever stopped,” he says. “I’ve been to plenty of sporting events but nothing compares to this at all.”

During one of the intermissions, Islanders owner Jon Ledecky went into the stands, spoke with fans and even took a photo with Adrian while commending him on having a linebacker’s stature. Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling also walked through the concourse that night, just like any old fan.

“That’s what makes the Islanders a different kind of team,” Adrian says. “This wouldn’t happen at Madison Square Garden or anywhere else for that matter.”

Even out-of-state fans geared up for the Islanders’ strong postseason this spring.

Jack Thury grew up on orange and blue in Northport and currently attends Boston’s Emmanuel College. He and other Beantown-based Isles fans took over the Cask’n Flagon pub adjacent to Fenway Park to watch the team clinch against Pittsburgh.

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Fans rallying for the Islanders during the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 26, 2019. Photo by Joe Nuzzo

In addition to the Islanders, Thury is also pulling for the Boston Bruins (the team that eliminated  Tavares’ Leafs) to reach the Eastern Conference final so that he could see one or more Islanders playoff games during his own finals season.

For the Isles to reach that round, the team would first have to do away with a pesky Carolina Hurricanes team which has bested the Islanders 2-0 at Barclays Center so far. With the series in Raleigh, North Carolina for Games 3 and 4, one fan from Massapequa thinks the Isles will weather the storm as road warriors.

“I think they will make this a six- or seven-game series easily,” says Brett Ansbacher, noting the Islanders haven’t lost three games in a row yet this season.

He and his father, Jonathan Ansbacher, have been Islanders season ticket holders for years, following the teams through ups and downs.

“I trust Barry Trotz and like many have noted, he came back in Round 1 last year down 2-0 in the series en route to leading the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup,” Ansbacher says, mentioning fears of an unpredictable Hurricanes team.

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Islanders mascot Sparky the Dragon gettiing the crowd excited during the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 26, 2019. Photo by Joe Nuzzo

The Islanders dropped the first two games by only a goal, losing Game 1 in overtime 1-0 where Lehner’s impressive 31-save night earned him the second star of the game. Meanwhile, a two-goal burst by Carolina at the start of the third period was the difference maker in Game 2.

Trotz says that the Hurricanes “had 48 seconds of pretty good hockey” following the Game 2 loss, mentioning his sentiment that the Islanders are far from done in this series and can easily reverse the deficit on the Canes.

“There’s some frustration for a few minutes and I think confidence grows out of that,” Trotz says.

“We’ve been resilient all year, we’ve been good on the road,” the cup-contending coach said while mentioning how “outstanding” Islanders fans have been this season and playoff run.

The Islanders play Game 4 against Carolina on Friday, May 3. After that, the Isles and Canes would return to Brooklyn for Game 5 on Sunday, May 5 then bounce back to Raleigh for Game 6 on Tuesday, May 7 with a quick return to Barclays Center for Game 7 on Wednesday, May 8, if necessary.

“No matter what though, this season is a huge success in my book and has me extremely excited for a future on Long Island,” Ansbacher says.