Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
NEWARK — The Islanders-Lightning series went bi-state Thursday, a veritable regionwide hockey playoff festival that stretched from the Devils’ practice rink here to IceWorks in Syosset.
Well, OK, maybe it was more just two teams looking for ice time with Justin Bieber clogging up the Barclays Center.
But still! It is hockey time in Big Town, with games still being played in May for the fifth consecutive spring, this time featuring the Islanders as the only winter sports show in town.
Local teams on playoff runs always are good for peripheral entertainment value. Local hockey teams on playoff runs are extra fun for fans of the sport, who during the regular season cheer in the relative anonymity of a niche interest.
Exhibit A: sports talk radio wars.
This week brought a memorable back-and-forth between WFAN’s Mike Francesa and 98.7 ESPN’s Rick DiPietro, a former Islanders goaltender.
Francesa, on his show Tuesday: “Tackling me in the radio business, you know, you’re you, and I’m Gordie Howe. So, you know, clam up.”
DiPietro’s retort, on Michael Kay’s show Wednesday: “Gordie Chow.”
Meanwhile, the series itself generated controversy in Game 3, when the Islanders reacted unfavorably to a no-call when Brian Boyle took Thomas Hickey out of what turned into the game-winning play Tuesday night.
Captain John Tavares minced no words afterward, saying, “It kind of boggles my mind a little bit.”
This is the sort of thing that makes putting up with the numbing slog of the regular season worthwhile.
But this particular case is special, even beyond what it means to New York hockey. It is a rare moment in the relevance sun for the Islanders, well timed for their first playoff in Brooklyn.
“It’s great to see the Islanders back in the race and in everybody’s consciousness, too,” said Kevin Weekes, a former Islanders, Rangers and Devils goalie and an influential hockey voice as one of the faces of the NHL Network.
“For a lot of fans and a lot of viewers, the New York Islanders are back. It’s huge! I love it.”
Weekes’ fellow NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp, who was drafted by the Islanders and played for the Devils and Rangers, feels similarly.
“I love it!” he said. “Trust me, I’d love to see them in the Final. It would be awesome, and they could do it.”
Rupp said that as much as he still has an emotional attachment to the Rangers, this has been something to behold.
“Of all the years when you’ve had the Devils’ [success] in this area and the Rangers more recently, it’s good to see the Islanders be the only team left, even if it ends in this series,” he said. “I love them. They’re fun.”
“Fun” is the key word, especially for those of us with no rooting interest who are just riding the waves.
Sports writers do not root for teams; we root for good stories. (As long as they can be told without requiring overtime periods that mess with our deadlines.)
And it is self-evident which result in Game 4 Friday night would make for a better story, at least in this neck of the hockey woods.
The show must go on.