Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

It was a season of mutual gift-giving for the Islanders and their fans, one offering victories, the other affection.

Then came Saturday night, and one last chance for hugs -- both figurative and literal -- before all concerned get down to the serious business of playoff hockey.

Thanks to the fact that the Islanders had clinched a playoff berth two nights earlier, their final regular-season game at Nassau Coliseum was free to be a celebration 43 years in the making rather than an abrupt farewell.

(In contrast, for example, with what befell the Mets and their fans at Shea Stadium in 2008, when the home team was ousted from playoff consideration and from its home stadium on the same day.)

The Islanders' ending was a dud. They blew a lead late in regulation time, then a lead in the shootout and lost home-ice advantage against the Capitals in the first playoff round.

But until that final Blue Jackets tally sucked the air out of the crowd, the mood was set to Party Time from the start, inside and outside the old barn, beginning with parking lots full of tailgaters on a fine spring day. (Try that in Brooklyn!)

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The players noticed.

"The atmosphere was incredible," John Tavares said afterward. "It's been great all year. They were humming out there."

After a season full of nostalgic looks back and honoring of Islanders greats past, there was one last round Saturday.

First former general manager Bill Torrey sent a video message on the comically antiquated, standard-definition scoreboard screen.

Then former coach Al Arbour's wife, Claire, dropped the ceremonial first puck, backed by their four children. Arbour was not well enough to make the trip.

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The Arbours were announced via the public-address system by Jiggs McDonald, the still-popular Islanders lead TV play-by-play voice from 1980-95.

Before the game, he recalled also being in the building for the first regular-season game, as an announcer for the Flames when they visited the Islanders on Oct. 7, 1972.

A Flames official that night looked around the brand-new place and said something to McDonald about how old it looked.

So the lack of love for the Coliseum goes way back. But in its final months as the Islanders' home, it has become the Charlie Brown's Christmas tree of arenas, appreciated for its attributes more than disparaged for its flaws.

"The seating here, the view, there isn't a bad seat," McDonald said, looking around from ice level and repeating what some always have known and everyone now seems to have noticed.

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The night before, McDonald visited the newfangled, post-Igloo arena in Pittsburgh for the first time and saw in it the sameness that one finds in new facilities around the land.

"They don't have that personality," he said.

No one ever accused the Coliseum of lacking that as a building, and no one ever accused the people inside the building of lacking it, either.

On Saturday night, they were jazzed, young fans making an old-school ruckus while older fans and arena workers showed each other vintage pictures, shared memories and got in a last few hugs.

Johnny Boychuk said he heard all the noise through the dressing room walls before going out for warm-ups.

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After the game, more fans than usual lingered to say a final goodbye, posing for group pictures and taking selfies with the ice as a backdrop.

All of this came on the 40th anniversary of the victory that launched the Islanders' golden era -- when they stunned the Rangers in a first-round series, capped by J.P. Parise's famous overtime goal.

That game was at the Garden, which lives on as the Rangers' home after a massive three-year renovation.

That sort of thing could have happened for the Islanders and the Coliseum, too, if the political winds had blown differently -- and perhaps if the Islanders had been playing like this in the early 2010s.

But no. All they are guaranteed now is another two games in Uniondale. The players hope to see more of what the building -- on its best days, at least -- can provide.

"It was a loud barn tonight," Kyle Okposo said, "and it's going to be amped up even more whenever we play here in Game 3."