Some people were still pinching themselves yesterday, making sure it was real when they saw “New York Islanders” on the bracket for the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The hex-ending, double-overtime victory Sunday night was both real and surreal. Most of all, it reflected the greatest triumph of all: that there still is such a thing as the New York Islanders.
What a shame it would have been if this group of players had won a stunning postseason game while playing for some outfit known as the new Kansas City Scouts or Quebec Nordiques or the Las Vegas Ramblers. It would have been as heartbreaking as it was for followers of the original Nordiques when their transplanted team won the 1996 Stanley Cup as the Colorado Avalanche. Or, more pertinent, how folks in Brooklyn were crushed when their beloved Dodgers won the 1959 World Series representing Los Angeles.
We never will know how close, if at all, the Islanders ever came to moving farther away than Atlantic Avenue. Nor does anyone have to worry about it. They’re here to stay. And the frenzy that nearly blew the roof off Barclays Center after John Tavares both tied and won Game 6 against Florida explained how much that means.
Keeping the Islanders here, in the general vicinity of Long Island, and preserving the colors and the crest — that all represents the greatest win of all in Charles Wang’s run as head of the team. It was a bigger save even than any of the 41 that Thomas Greiss made in beating the Panthers, 2-1.
None of us agreed with every move Wang has made in his 16 years, the longest tenure of any owner in team history. Some of us — one of us, at least — always will wonder how life might have gone on at Nassau Coliseum if he had built a contending team before politicians made their decisions and the public took a vote. But give him his due credit. He can be proud of the fact that he kept them afloat and kept them close enough for their fans to enjoy them.
Fans still can watch every game on TV and root for someone wearing a uniform with the outline of Long Island on it. People who were there Sunday night reveled in every morsel: the piercing noise, the exhilaration on the LIRR, the knowledge that the Empire State Building was bathed in blue and orange. When Wang turns over majority control to Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin in July, he will not hand them a cup of regrets.
A legacy is alive and well. With the tying and overtime goals, Tavares has a new link with John Tonelli (vs. Pittsburgh, 1982). Greiss followed in the footsteps of Chico Resch, Bill Smith and Glenn Healy. All of the current Islanders are part of a continuum that connects J.P. Parise/ Ed Westfall to Denis Potvin/ Bryan Trottier to Ray Ferraro (a broadcaster who called Sunday’s game)/Steve Thomas (an assistant coach for the Lightning, the Islanders’ next opponent). The latter two were huge for the 1993 team, the last Islanders to win a playoff series before Sunday.
Current players are relieved they never again will have to hear about The Drought. “But it’s our history. We just wanted to write our own page,” said Kyle Okposo, a careerlong Islander and potential free agent. If he goes somewhere else, at least he will know he left something behind.
Frans Nielsen, another potential free agent, is the longest-tenured member of the team. Fourteen years since having been an Islanders draft pick have taught him it is not always easy to play for or cheer for this team. But he would not trade a second of it.
“For sure, there were some tough years in the beginning when I was here, but this just makes it so much better,” he said. “You don’t just get into this league. You need somebody to believe in you. I had Garth [Snow] and the coaches. They believed I could play. This organization means a lot to me. It gave me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world.”
The organization means a lot to Wang and many others around here, too. Their Islanders are alive in the playoffs. More important, they still are the Islanders.