When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a recent Newsday interview that people tend to exaggeratedly romanticize Nassau Coliseum, he did have a point. It wasn’t the nirvana that fond memories make it out to be. Except for the playoffs. There is not, and never will be, a place like the Coliseum in the postseason.
No Islander will ever again have the experience that the 1993 team did, when players got goosebumps as they sat in the locker room before a playoff game and felt the room vibrate from the fans’ chanting. Nor will there be a moment like the one in the 2002 series against the Maple Leafs, after Shawn Bates scored on a penalty shot, when Islanders coach Peter Laviolette could not hear his assistant coach shouting in his ear because the noise was too great.
So the atmosphere will be different Sunday night for the first Stanley Cup playoff game at Barclays Center. As the Islanders have pointed out the past couple of days, “different” does not necessarily mean “bad.” They expect Barclays Center to be exhilarating and exciting. They expect it to feel like home.
“We know what kind of environment our fans can create. We’re counting on them. We want to feed off them,” said John Tavares, captain of the team that will open a new chapter in franchise history as it plays Game 3 against the Panthers in Brooklyn.
His idea, and that of his coach and teammates, is that the venue might be different, but the people in the stands will be mostly the same. And those folks will not forget how to turn it up a notch for the postseason.
“The Coliseum, to me, was one of the most intimidating buildings because they were right on top of you,’’ Jack Capuano said, referring to the fans. “It was great when we played those series against Pittsburgh and Washington. Here, it’s going to be the same way. The first real taste for me was the [first] Ranger game at home, to see how loud it was. I just love New York fans, how vocal they are. We’re excited about this.”
Kyle Okposo, who has played all of his career with the Islanders and is in his third postseason in the past four years, said, “You couldn’t beat the atmosphere in the Coliseum. Both teams we played in the playoffs, Pittsburgh and Washington, both said that it was tough to play in. I hope we carry that into our first series at Barclays Center.”
He added that he believes playoff fever will make the transition just fine. “I think it’s going to be fun,” he said.
The phrase “they don’t make them like that anymore” was never more applicable than it was to the arena on Hempstead Turnpike. Its low ceiling and economical seating configuration gave sound nowhere to escape. It was a perfect cauldron for playoff intensity. Modern sports facilities, built to include more space and amenities, simply do not contain noise as well as their predecessors did. The new Yankee Stadium and Chicago’s United Center are good examples.
Still, as rich as the atmosphere was, the Coliseum really did not give the Islanders a huge advantage in the post-Cup era. In the past two series, the team was 3-3 at home. In their three series before that, they went 0-6. On the other hand, they were a solid 25-11-5 in their first regular season at Barclays Center despite distractions such as having to commute by train.
“There have been adjustments, things we’ve had to get used to and what-not,” Tavares said. “We’ve figured out that no matter what the circumstances are, we’ve got to get the results that we need. It’s a way of life now and we’ve come to understand that.”
Barclays has proved it can get loud. The place has been vibrant for Nets playoff games, and the Nets don’t have anywhere near the passionate fan base that the Islanders do. The building was rocking last month for NCAA Tournament basketball.
Neither Bettman nor anyone else can blame us for being a little nostalgic Sunday night, though. It will be a new kind of hockey springtime. As Matt Martin said Saturday, “The Coliseum was nuts. You felt like the place was going to fall down. You hope that it’s going to be the same at Barclays Center.”
We will see, and we will hear.