Outside, the fans were setting up tents and grills and coolers long before any Islanders were inside. Johnny Boychuk, still in temporary digs at the Marriott next door, said the tailgaters woke him before 10 a.m.
The final opener in Nassau Coliseum history brought out a perfect celebration of the old building. From the crowds in the parking lots hours before game time to the "Let's go Islanders!" chants in the minutes leading up to puck drop and all the way through a stirring -- and occasionally messy -- 4-3 win over the Hurricanes, Saturday night felt like the right way to kick off this last go-round for the Coliseum.
"We knew it would be pretty electric. It always is when this place is full," John Tavares said. "It's some of the most passionate fans in sports. Just driving in and seeing all the tailgaters, it has to get you fired up."
If this were a fitting start to the Coliseum send-off, it fittingly was led by Tavares, the captain and leader the Islanders and their fans have been crying out for. He had three assists in Friday's 5-3 opener in Raleigh, then sent a big shot past Anton Khudobin 3:50 into the game, sending the 16,170 into the sort of frenzy not heard since spring 2013 and the lone playoff games of Tavares' five-plus seasons here.
Tavares has been the leader of this club since he set foot on the Coliseum ice as a 19-year-old on Oct. 3, 2009. Like Saturday night, Tavares had a goal and an assist that first night; like many nights between then and now, the Islanders didn't win in No. 91's NHL debut, a 4-3 shootout loss to Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
The team finally has been built up around Tavares to the point that these two season-opening wins feel right. (Never mind that this is only the fifth time in 43 Islanders seasons that they've started 2-0-0.)
Boychuk, the ever-smiling newcomer, simply fires away from the point, clearing space or occasionally banking goals off Brock Nelson in front. Each new goaltender, Jaro Halak and Chad Johnson, has earned a win. Cory Conacher, a plucky 24-year-old addition, scored off a brilliant feed from Tavares at 14:44 of the first.
It still revolves around Tavares, but there's something different in the air.
Even the introductions were different and appropriate. Tavares wouldn't take credit for the Islanders bucking NHL custom and skating onto the ice as a group, without individual introductions. He credited the Coliseum's game operations staff, which went to Tavares and alternate captains Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen with an idea they embraced.
"It's not about each guy, it's about the team and the franchise and this building," Tavares said. "We loved it the minute we heard it."
They are now truly a team. Players in the right roles, from Tavares and Okposo hounding the Hurricanes to a speedy second line anchored by Nelson to a third line centered by Nielsen, in the checking-line role he was born to play.
"It's hard to defend, that's for sure," Tavares said.
Outside, in the damp afternoon, the fans huddled over their grills and under their tents and wondered whether this team finally will become a contender. They discussed line combinations and defense pairs and all the nervous details the diehards obsess over.
Inside, they burst forth on Tavares' drive and tried to hold off the "same ol' Isles" thoughts as Carolina pulled within a goal late, exploding with delight at the win and the loudness inside the beautiful ruin of a building, many perhaps dreaming of one last long ride into spring.
These people, this building, this captain -- they have seen more disappointment than euphoria of late.
It felt right, a dramatic win fueled by the best Islander in two decades. It felt right to kick off this last season in Nassau this way, with a win, a whole mess of noise and the promise of something exciting still to come.