The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum sits in suburban Uniondale, N.Y., surrounded by a vast parking lot. Birds fly in the rafters near banners commemorating the glory days of the early ’80s – four Stanley Cups, six retired numbers. The showers in the dressing room take a long time to heat up.
Too often, the old barn hasn’t been full. Too often, the New York Islanders haven’t given fans a reason to come – screwy owners, crazy contracts, horrible hockey. Fourteen out of the last 19 seasons, the Isles have missed the playoffs. Not since 1993 have they won a playoff round.
So much of the focus is on the future – new ownership, up-and-coming players, the move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn next fall – and it should be. Still, there is one more season to play at Nassau, and this is a team that wants to make noise now. Literally.
Only three members of the current roster were alive the last time the Islanders won the Cup. These guys don’t know what Nassau used to be like. But enough of them know what it was like in May 2013, when the Islanders appeared in the playoffs for the first time in six years and put a scare into the Pittsburgh Penguins in a six-game first-round series.
“The postseason, the little taste that I’ve had of it, it was a different level of loud,” said winger Kyle Okposo.
Nassau has its quirks – cramped quarters that force the players to mingle with the arena workers, cozy stands that put the fans on top of the ice, thin walls that let the sound seep through, a low ceiling that holds the sound in.
Now that Nassau is near death, those quirks have become endearing.
The players remember coming to the rink for Game 3 against the Penguins, the first home game of the series. They received encouragement from the arena workers as they walked to the dressing room and played soccer in the hall. They heard the crowd roar in the room as they put on their equipment. They felt the buzz during warmups. They felt the shake as they scored 1:47 into the first period and again less than four minutes later. Okposo couldn’t hear coach Jack Capuano calling out lines on the bench.
“That was awesome,” Okposo said.
The Islanders ended up losing Game 3 in overtime, 5-4. But they won Game 4, 6-4. Captain John Tavares broke a 4-4 tie midway through the third, and Casey Cizikas iced it with 1:16 to go, and the series was tied, and ALL CAPS ISN’T ENOUGH TO CONVEY THE REACTION.
“You couldn’t even hear yourself think,” Tavares said. “I was on the bench. You could see everyone standing up for the rest of the game.”
“That was insane,” Tavares said. “Our fans are extremely passionate, cramming into an old building like that. They were so hungry for something to be cheering for and proud of. They showed why that rink can be a lot of fun to play in.”
Problem was, Nassau wasn’t fun to play in last season. The Islanders finished 34-37-11 for 79 points, last in the Metropolitan Division. They ranked 17th on the power play, 29th on the penalty kill. They blew 13 two-goal leads. “It’s still kind of mind-boggling,” Tavares said. They won only 13 games at home, tied for the fewest in the NHL.
General manager Garth Snow, despite his spotty record, made significant improvements over the summer and in the preseason. He addressed the Islanders’ greatest weakness by adding goaltender Jaroslav Halak and backup Chad Johnson. He bolstered the defense in one day by plucking Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy from the cap-strapped Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. He signed forward duo Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.
The Islanders’ save percentage should be better. Their special teams should be better. Their defense should be better. Their scoring balance should be better. Tavares and fellow center Frans Nielsen should play fewer harder minutes and see some better matchups.
So far, mostly good. The Islanders are 4-1-0. They rank 11th in 5-on-5 save percentage. They’re fourth on the power play, but dead-last on the PK. They haven’t blown a two-goal lead yet. Tavares – fully recovered from a knee injury suffered at the Sochi Olympics – has nine points, tied for the NHL scoring lead with reigning MVP Sidney Crosby. But it’s far too early to read into much.
Last season, the Islanders started 2-0-1, then went 7-19-6 over their next 32. They lost 10 straight during that stretch (including two OT losses).
In 2012-13, they started 4-2-1, then lost five straight, seven of nine and 10 of 14 (with one OT loss).
In 2011-12, they started 3-1-0, then went 2-10-4 over their next 16.
In 2010-11, they started 4-1-2, then went 0-11-3 over their next 14, 1-17-3 over their next 21.
“We always seem to be real slow out of the gate,” Tavares said. “We seem to be playing catch-up and play well more in the second half of the season. Something that I’ve said a lot is, ‘We need to find consistency.’ ”
Okposo spoke with a sense of urgency.
“Every team’s going to go through spells throughout the year when they lose some games, but the good teams find a way to not lose three, four in a row,” Okposo said. “They find a way to eliminate that, and they find a way to get points. That’s one thing that we have to learn from. It has to be this year. We have to learn now, because not playing in the playoffs isn’t fun. We want to get back there.
“Last year was tough. Once you get in the playoffs, you never want to go back (to missing them).”
Only one more chance to get back to the playoffs in Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Only one more chance to cram the fans into the old barn, to feel the shake.
“I love playing there,” Okposo said. “I love it. It’s loud. It’s intense. It’s not like some of the buildings that are brand-new and kind of dull and quiet. It’s got a lot of character.”
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