Nassau Coliseum might look on the verge of being condemned, but the New York Islanders are still alive — and kicking.
First it was a proposed rehabilitation project that never got off the ground, then the specter of a cross-country resettlement in Kansas City. For the past decade, Islanders fans have become experts in disappointment. Their owner, Charles Wang, has been at once stingy and profligate, scrimping on much-needed talent while green-lighting obscene contract extensions (we haven’t forgotten you, Rick DiPietro). It was this miasma, which stuck to the franchise like glue, that spawned the idea of relocation, and, on the part of some especially colorful fans, suicide.
After an acrimonious debate pitting public officials, team officials, Nassau County constituents and Islanders fans all against each other, it was decided that the Islanders would relocate to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season. Fans, many of whom hail from the boonies out in Suffolk County, were despondent, unable to block the move. Yet they sublimated their anger and sadness and frustration into feverish, wholehearted support for their soon-to-be uprooted team, and in doing so they jelled into the most boisterous cheering section the Coliseum has seen in years. So says John Tavares, anyway.
“[Nick] Leddy a shot … oh … directed on goal … SCORE! TAVARES!” That was the brainchild of discombobulated play-by-play announcer Howie Rose, his eyes trailing the puck as it pinballed every which way before finding the net. Not that he should have expected things to unfold that way, or called it coherently — the goal came just 15 seconds into overtime. Tavares, a former number one draft pick and current team captain, let his momentum carry him past the goal, where he swerved left toward the arcing section of the boards, cathartically cocking and pumping his fist. His teammates mobbed him. The Coliseum was delirious.
Not since Shawn Bates beat Curtis Joseph stick-side in a shootout in the 2001-02 playoffs has the Coliseum rocked like that. I should know — I was there. To this day, it is the single greatest sporting event I’ve ever attended. A tense quietude hung in the air for the split-second after the puck whizzed past CuJo, then, as if on cue, Bates’ teammates dogpiled on top of him at center ice while we all went ballistic. I was eight years old.
The significance of Tavares’ goal — the build-up, the execution, the revelation, the raucous celebration — cannot be overstated, though Tavares himself, a whiz both on and off the puck, is as understated a star as you’ll find in all of professional sports. It sealed the game, which the Islanders almost lost after dominating virtually the whole way. They are now up two-games-to-one against the Washington Capitals, poised to proceed to the conference semi-finals, something they haven’t done since the 1992-93 season. In fact, the Islanders have failed to make it beyond the first round in their last six playoff appearances, spanning more than 20 years.
This is heady stuff. The Islanders are led by a cadre of young talent — Tavares and compatriot Ryan Strome, Nick Leddy and Brock Nelson, to name a few — with room to grow. To be sure, they are underdogs this postseason; however, even if they don’t make it to the promised land this go-round, the future looks bright.
The future looks bright. As I write these words, I’m chuckling to myself; we’re talking about the Islanders after all. But it’s true: In their final season at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders will have gone out with a bang.
Brooklyn will be different — hipsters, better food, a turf war with the Rangers, not Uniondale. Despite all its aesthetic deficiencies, the Coliseum is festooned above center ice with banners denoting a proud and storied history. Here’s hoping the Barclays Center bears witness, too.