Islanders pump new life into their fans

Islanders' goaltender Evgeni Nabokov watches as Winnipeg Jets' Zach Bogosian's shot goes in during the first period. (April 20, 2013)

This is when it would be natural to say what a good ride this was for the Islanders and how bright their future surely is. Except that would be disrespectful and patronizing to a team that has no interest in moral victories.

In the days ahead, there will be time for postmortems and silver linings. Last night -- when their season ended after they lost a lead late in the third period and fell, 4-3, in overtime -- was not that time. "It's a tough pill to swallow," John Tavares said.

Mark Streit said, "It's a tough one. It's tough to find the right words right now."

Well, here's a stab at the right words: The Islanders matter again. These Islanders dusted off the team's identity and polished the fervor that has been there all along. The tough, stirring six-game series against the Penguins that ended at Nassau Coliseum last night proved that this franchise is much more than an antiquated idea.

Islanders fans are dedicated and passionate. They just aren't saps. No way were they going to buy into a dead-end situation. Thus, they were not here in strong numbers or hearty voice in recent years.

At the intersection of hope and nostalgia, fans grew to love the team in a way not seen around here in years. "I haven't been around, but we hopefully gained some respect back in the league and with our fans and the community," said forward Colin McDonald, who had one of the three goals that gave the Isles a lead. "I think we have."

This just feels different than the playoff appearances last decade, which were fueled mostly by veterans. Fans in 2013 are pumped about the youth, speed and style of play. They see the credibility in Tavares, an emerging superstar and league MVP candidate. Naturally, he scored the first goal last night.

So, here's to tomorrow -- and to yesterday. Alongside all the forward thinking is a wistful, end-of-an-era vibe. Islanders fans know that Nassau Coliseum's days are numbered. For better or worse, things will not be the same in Brooklyn. So this playoff run has been not only a tribute to what the Islanders might become, but a celebration of what they have been.

There was stunned silence after Brooks Orpik's OT goal. Then there was warmth. The organist played the Islanders theme song, which dates back to the 1970s. Fans chanted "Let's Go Islanders!" and, for Tavares, "M-V-P!" Players skated around, tapping their sticks on the ice to salute the fans.

"I've appreciated every single time someone has come up to me and said how proud they are to be an Islander fan," Tavares said. "They were absolutely unbelievable this series, and down the stretch. We hope we can bring them some more."

There is more work to do if they want to raise a banner someday to the Barclays Center ceiling. Coach Jack Capuano spoke earlier yesterday, proudly, about how this team has inherited the blue-collar mentality of the Islanders' dynasty. But those teams had five Hall of Famers. Al Arbour's Islanders won 19 straight playoff series. As of now, the team has gone 20 years without having won one.

These Islanders need to add pieces. They didn't have the Penguins' depth or Plan B options.

It was a good sign last night that players were genuinely, deeply disappointed. It showed they were never happy just to be in the playoffs. "We can't expect things to just come next year," Tavares said. Then he added, "I like where we're headed."

They were good enough to make Nassau Coliseum the center of the hockey universe for the first time in years. It was a great show, and it was a reminder that this franchise always has been a good idea.