Coliseum played a passionate part in Islanders'success
As they make their way through the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time, these youthful Islanders do have a proven, tested (albeit weary) veteran on their side, one with an amazing playoff record. The venerable contributor is 41, old by hockey standards, but still standing -- behind acres of blacktop on Hempstead Turnpike.
Nassau Coliseum enters the series at noon Sunday for Game 3 against the Penguins like an aging All-Star forward who still can kick it into high gear for one last run. For better or worse, there is no place like it.
"In the playoffs, no one cares how the paint looks or how many restrooms there are or how long the lines are to get food," said Joe McMahon, who spent 19 years as the Islanders' equipment manager and witnessed postseason games all over North America. None of them matched springtime just off Meadowbrook Parkway, where fans would start gathering before 10 a.m. for night games.
"I remember what it was like in Game 6 in '93 against the Penguins. We were facing elimination," McMahon said. After warm-ups, fans were stomping on the metal risers in the 100 sections, chanting "Let's Go Islanders!" so loud that the sound filled the locker room. Players didn't even have to turn on the stereo for their usual motivational music.
"Travis Green was shaking. He told me, 'I'm so pumped up!' " McMahon said, recalling that Game 6 win that led to a Game 7 victory over a Penguins team that was favored as heavily as this year's Pittsburgh squad is.
The intimacy of the building, the stark architecture, the aura of Stanley Cup banners and the pent-up frustration of followers represent a combustible mixture.
Yes, the Coliseum can be a desolate place in January during lean seasons. But comparing those nights to the atmosphere in May is like comparing struggling rookie Bob Nystrom, whose skating was wobbly at best in 1972, to the Nystrom who sped down left wing and knocked home the overtime goal at 7:11 at the Coliseum May 24, 1980, that won the first Stanley Cup for the Islanders.
Embracing the playoffs after years of heartache is like having endured Don Maloney's disputed goal, then celebrating Ken Morrow's game-winner (at the Coliseum on April 10, 1984). How the girders shook with chants of "Steve Webb!" during the series against the Maple Leafs in 2002.
"I think the difference is the people," said Benoit Hogue, a member of the 1993 team who played on the Cup-winning Stars in 1999 and now is a full-time Long Islander in Babylon. "I've played in stadiums where they made a lot of noise, but the New York people are just so passionate."
Patrick Flatley, an Islanders rookie during the Finals run in 1984 and team captain in 1993, said, "I think it goes beyond the Coliseum. If you just go to the deli, you get the sense that everybody is behind you. The people who do get to go to the games are just so appreciative. The atmosphere is second to none.
"I don't know if it's the acoustics or what, but it is deafening in there," he said fondly. He added that he never has heard noisier crowds in the NHL than those at the Coliseum in the playoffs. Said Flatley, "I'd be willing to put that to a sound test."
Still, it is not just the sound, it is the feeling, Flatley said. He loved parking in the lot and walking in past the fans. "There was a communal feeling between us and them,'' he said. "To me, that's the way sports should be."
Not that it guarantees anything. Consider how the crowd chanted something along the lines of "We stink!" when the Islanders failed to score in two home playoff games against the Lightning in 2004.
The Islanders will take their chances. "I don't know what it's going to be like," said Kyle Okposo, the hero of the Game 2 win in Pittsburgh on Friday. "But I know it's going to be special."
Debate about the failure to build a new Coliseum and questions about whether Brooklyn really is a good fit for this team and these fans are for another day. On Sunday, it's the playoffs, the old Coliseum's time to shine.