Even before Josh Bailey scored in overtime, the Islanders emerged as winners Wednesday night.
It happened hours before the goal that gave the Isles a 4-3 OT win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, taking a 1-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.
The win happened with the 13,917 who made for a true home-ice advantage. The Coliseum rocked as it hasn’t in over three decades for the opening game of a series. It’s that special bite of playoff hockey adding fervor to a moment that is special for a franchise that has been a wondering soul of sorts.
The place was loud and packed, the intensity brewing hours beforehand with hundreds of fans tailgating outside the Coliseum before the traditional lunchtime. The atmosphere before the puck dropped was teeming and frothy.
It was playoff hockey, back on Long Island, and for the first time since 1988, the Isles played Game 1 at the Coliseum.
This team belongs on the ‘Island.’ That is the common refrain from longtime fans who haven’t fully embraced the team’s move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn at the start of the 2015-16 season. Judging from the turnout and excitement, none of which waned very much throughout a tight and chippy game, the Islanders are truly back home on this ice.
Fans know all too well the reputation they have, not just around the rest of the NHL but across the nation. When the Islanders have struggled, the Coliseum has been the antipode of what was seen on Wednesday night where fans seemingly waited to be uncoiled ahead of the game. This arena was mockingly called the Mausoleum and the Nausoleum over the past three decades as the Islanders didn’t give much for their fans to celebrate.
And when Jordan Eberle scored just 1:40 into the game, the frustration and pain of so many years wandering in the wilderness of the NHL dissolved into cheers.
It rarely has been easy to be an Islanders fan over the years, but now, things just seem to be working out for this organization. The hunt for what would be a fifth Stanley Cup seemed improbable just six months ago.
They weren’t supposed to be here, either on Long Island or even in the playoffs. But here and now, this is a team defying odds, sticking their collective jaws out and taking every punch thrown at them. Just like a true Long Islander.
This team was picked by several national publications during the preseason to finish last in the division. No matter that there was a good core returning and several young players showed promise a season ago, no one gave this team a chance at making a run at the playoffs. The idea of Barry Trotz coming to the team, fresh off a Stanley Cup win with the Washington Capitals a year ago, didn’t seem to elicit too much hope either. But this team brushed aside the preseason sneers to finish second in the Metropolitan Division with a 48-27-7 record.
After a second period that was anything but crisp from the Islanders, the Coliseum faithful responded as only they could. A tense third period, characterized by big hits and physical play, brought out the best of a fanbase that has seen some hard times over the years. Gassed and perhaps demoralized a bit by frustrating calls and their own mistakes, this team was lifted by the wild home crowd.
The noise didn’t stop when the Penguins leveled the game late in the third period. It just kept coming.
And when Bailey found the back of the net, it was the same voices, finding their volume after three hours of non-stop cheering. But it was a different cheer. No less loud, no less lusty. But it was different.
It was the return of winning Islanders hockey back where it belonged. Back where so much suffering has bred an appreciation for this moment.
Back, in this place that the team had escaped from a few years ago, only to feel the callback. The cheer was loud and unmistakable. It was made on Long Island.
Back. Back home.
[Coverage of Game 2 Begins at 6:30 PM Friday on MSG+ and MSG GO]