The occasion meant so much to the Islanders, their fans and their franchise that they did not even want to talk about it. Nor did they have to. The meaning went beyond words.
Everyone involved knows that it is the playoffs that say who you are as a hockey player and a team. The postseason is how people judge and remember you, and there has been much to forget for the Islanders since 1993, the last year in which they won a series. So there was a lot of emotion, frustration and hex-breaking hope riding on Game 6 against the Panthers Sunday night.
It was their first chance to close a series at home since the first round 23 years ago, and their best chance to win one anywhere. Granted, winning the game would represent only 1/19th of the run that the great Islander teams of the 1980s went on, when they won 19 consecutive series. But this game had the potential for a fresh start and a new identity.
The whole thing was too much to grasp. As Frans Nielsen said after the overtime win in Game 5: “There’s still a lot of hockey to be played yet.”
A major reason why this opportunity loomed so large is that the cloud that has hovering for so long was even bigger.
Much has happened to the Islanders since 1993, almost all of it not good. At times, the hockey team seemed only an afterthought or a tool for sealing a real estate deal around Nassau Coliseum. The stretch has been a jumble of jagged edges: the ownership group known as the Gang of Four, John Spano, the Milstein tenure, the notion to hire sumo wrestlers as goalies and other wacky ideas from Charles Wang and the two words that still make Islanders fans shudder: “Mike Milbury.”
What might have been forgotten in that scramble is that the long drought in the playoffs began with a first-round loss in 1994, when the Islanders put up almost no resistance to the Rangers on their way to ending their own long Stanley Cup dry spell.
There were years when the Islanders only dreamed about even making the playoffs because they were so far out of the running. At least in the past few years, especially since John Tavares has established himself as one of the greatest players in the sport, the franchise has re-focused on building a solid product on the ice again. That has its own set of challenges.
As this series has reminded the Islanders, every single victory is hard to come by. The other side is stepping up its game and trying to prove something on its own, too. These six games against the Panthers have been as tight as anyone could imagine. Going into Sunday night, the sides have been either tied or only one goal apart for 88 percent of the time. Neither team had built a three-goal margin, except for the fleeting moments of down time during a review that ultimately wiped out a Panthers goal and restored a 3-0 lead to 2-0 in Game 3 — a game that the Islanders eventually won.
One more reason why Sunday night meant so much was that the fans hungered for it so much. In an almost mystifying way, the Islanders have grown more popular among young fans as their playoff futility grew year after year. A look around the stands will tell you that many of the people filling them were not here for the early 1980s glory, and a whole lot of them probably weren’t here in 1993, either.
They might not have liked it, but they made the rocky transition to Brooklyn along with the players. As a matter of fact, these three home playoff games seemed to change the vibe at Barclays Center. At least among the fans who attended the games, the feeling went from tolerating it to embracing it. The train rides fostered a new layer of community among them. You could see it in the energy at the Jamaica Long Island Rail Road station Sunday afternoon: Dozens of people wearing blue and orange, changing from other lines to the Atlantic Terminal-bound train, spontaneously began chanting “Let’s Go Islanders,” interspersed with their renditions of the sound effects that are played after Islanders goals.
Yes (or should we say in Islanders lingo Yes! Yes! Yes!) Sunday night meant the world to people who had waited a long time for it.