John Tavares, Kyle Okposo something to write home about

John Tavares celebrates his game-tying third period goal

John Tavares celebrates his game-tying third period goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. (May 5, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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Overlooking one minor detail, that the Islanders lost, 5-4, in overtime, it was a spectacular day for Long Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. That includes all those people who made an impression from the stands, and two conspicuous Long Islanders on the ice, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.

Tavares and Okposo, of course, were not born here, but that is just another minor detail. They are homegrown talents, the former already a bona fide NHL star and the other seemingly becoming one right before our eyes. They were No. 1 draft picks here, they have made their careers here, they like being here and they fit right in here.

They are the best examples of how this current Islanders team, which trails the Penguins two games to one, reflects its arena and environment: earnest, unpretentious and solid. They both gave everything they had Sunday, and that was almost enough.

Okposo, a Minnesotan who won Game 2 in Pittsburgh with a winning fight and the winning goal, scored shorthanded at 5:31 of the third period to awaken the old building and most everyone in it, cutting the Penguins' lead to 4-3. Then Tavares, 22, from the Toronto suburbs, who has emerged as a league MVP candidate, peeled some old Coliseum paint with the roar he evoked by tying the score late in the third. It was his first Stanley Cup playoff goal.

Tavares obviously was right when he said that milestones don't matter in a playoff series, only results do. Still, this home playoff game was six years in the making, and it was worth the wait.

The Islanders do not have the luxury of signing big-money free agents. The company line is that such players don't want to play at the Coliseum. Maybe so, but the budget and a six-year playoff absence might have had something to do with it. In any case, the team has no choice but to build through the draft. Fans get to see the kids develop and they build a bond. When there is a big occasion like Sunday, the players and spectators feel like they've reached it by coming a long way together.

"Even driving here this morning, you could see the parking lot, it was 9:30, 10 o'clock and it was completely packed," said defenseman Travis Hamonic, a second-round Islanders pick in 2008. "Unfortunately, it's been six years since they've had a playoff game, but you could tell they were ready to go and they did an unbelievable job. It sent chills up my spine, really."

All of the noise and electricity helped the Islanders take a 2-0 lead in the first 5:41, and helped them come back from a 4-2 hole later. "It was fantastic," Tavares said. "People here are some of the most passionate hockey people I've ever seen. And they've got a lot of pride, they love the tradition of the New York Islanders. We feed off that and we're excited for them."

Okposo said: "I haven't heard it this loud since I've been here, the last five years. They were our seventh man."

For a second consecutive game, Okposo was the Islanders' leading man. He was strong, assertive and fast at both ends of the ice. He won seven of the 10 faceoffs he took, and generally maintained the upward career arc lately from the power forward chosen seventh overall in the 2006 draft.

"I think he's a bull on the puck. It's like he's a linebacker and no one can knock him off it," Hamonic said. "I take joy in watching defensemen playing against him because he just gives them a beating. I'm happy I'm not on the other end of it."

Maybe it will turn out that the Islanders had their one shot to take control of this series, and lost it. Maybe the Penguins win the next two. But a day like Sunday did give the impression that there will be more days like Sunday.

Homegrown players on a homespun team in a homey old arena; that was something to write home about.