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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Islanders fans know all about waiting for playoff payoff

New York Islanders center John Tavares skates with

New York Islanders center John Tavares skates with the puck against the Florida Panthers during the first period of Game 3 in a first-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff series at Barclays Center on Sunday, April 17, 2016. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

This might take a while. That is what the Islanders and Panthers basically agreed in the past few days: this series will not be easily or quickly won. And it also is the motto for building success, and character. It can take a while.

As John Tavares said the other day: “That’s part of it: the journey, the battle. Sometimes the struggle is most rewarding when you overcome that.”

Islanders fans would have felt a certain edginess Sunday night, no matter where the game would have been held. Sure, the site took on a life of its own because it was the first Stanley Cup playoff game ever at Barclays Center. But what really gave it urgency was that it has been six years since the Islanders began the John Tavares Era and they have yet to win a playoff series. The feeling is, it’s about time.

That is no new feeling in Islanders history. It is worth noting that there was a time when a group of fans printed and distributed leaflets, urging their fellow fans to be more vocal. That, believe it or not, was in 1980, when the supporters were anxious because the road to a Cup seemed to be taking forever.

We tend to think about the long-ago Islanders and see perfection. But there was a time when their own faith and the fans’ patience was tested. By the end of the 1970s, when they lost to the Rangers in the semifinal round despite having had home-ice advantage, the Islanders were seen as playoff underachievers.

“I got a lot of criticism because I didn’t make a lot of moves,” said Bill Torrey, who was the Islanders’ general manager back then and was at Barclays Center Sunday night as special advisor and alternate governor (and former president) of the Panthers. “But I just felt that looking at the age and experience, I mean, I tried to do a few intermediate things but I wasn’t going to give up the future.”

Torrey said the expectations for the Islanders were “out of sight” after the team knocked out the Rangers and reached the semifinals in 1975. His team was eliminated the next two seasons by the eventual champion Canadiens, which was not so bad. But in 1978, the Islanders were battered and beaten by the Maple Leafs. Then the next year they lost to the Rangers, which really stung.

“We lost some games that, maybe if I had been able to do a few things that I tried to do . . . ” the former executive said.

The Islanders had other problems, mostly financial. Reports surfaced in the mid-1970s that owner Roy Boe used funds from the Islanders to prop up the Nets. At the time, Newsday’s Joe Gergen applied the Bible-inspired phrase “Robbing Peter to pay Paul,” saying the situation was like “Robbing Potvin to pay Paultz.”

Billy Paultz was traded to the Spurs, while Denis Potvin and his hockey teammates were left on the Island to deal with disappointments. It was a test that grew tougher every year.

“I think we kept getting better as a team and having Al Arbour, and no changes on the team, really, was part of the growth,” said Potvin, who also was in Brooklyn Sunday night as a Panthers broadcaster. “We knew when we lost to the Leafs and then to the Rangers, it finally got us to that brink where we couldn’t stand it anymore. We’d do anything we could to get out of it. I think the faith was the real belief that we were getting better, and the fact that we were 25, 26. It wasn’t like we were 32 and at the end of our rope.”

Of course, they were not at the end of their rope. They were at the start of a string, of four consecutive Cups. The announcement of which during a raucous pregame celebration Sunday night drew a roar from fans who have come to know that good things can take a while.

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