This is what you signed up for if you root for the Islanders. It is what you’ve always heard about if you’re among the many (the majority?) that started following them in the past 20 years. This is definitely what you remember if you were around in the 1970s, 1980s or 1993. This is when it gets to be fun.
The team will be in Brooklyn tomorrow with a chance to close out a series on home ice for the first time since that amazingly intense night 23 years ago, when the Islanders shook Nassau Coliseum and knocked out the Capitals. If you are a fan, this is what you have been waiting for. The team put itself in this position by beating the Panthers, 2-1, early Saturday morning on Alan Quine’s power-play goal at 16:00 of the second overtime in Game 5 here.
Their fans never have had a chance to witness a home series clincher since that long-ago Capitals game. It happens all the time for other teams. Seeing that they once won 19 playoff series in a row, the thought of winning just one should not be considered scaling Mount Everest. But given more than two decades of history, it is a shot at truly enjoying the playoffs for a change.
And the Stanley Cup playoffs are there to be enjoyed. Nothing is quite like them. No other sport makes such a quantum leap from the regular season to the postseason the way hockey does.
“You could see it all over the league when you watch the games. It’s crazy, nobody really understands. If you’ve never ever been involved in an NHL playoff game, you don’t really understand how great it is,” Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr, 44, said after the morning skate yesterday.
Yes, Jagr was on the ice the last time the Islanders won a playoff series, a stunner in Pittsburgh after that 1993 win over Washington.
“That’s the reason I came back from Europe,” Jagr said. “Just missing that kind of part of the game, it cannot compare to anything else.”
Frans Nielsen, a lifelong Islander and potential free agent, gave his team its first 1-0 lead of the series at 13:31 of the first period, pounding home a rebound. Before and after that, Thomas Greiss kept pucks out of the Islanders’ net with more of the impressive saves he has been making in his first run as a playoff starter. He capped it by stopping Aleksander Barkov’s penalty shot in overtime. As Greiss said matter-of-factly after the Game 4 loss, “I enjoy playing hockey.”
Despite the stomach-churning pressure, that should be the whole point for everyone. “Pressure is good because it means you have a chance,” Jack Capuano said before the series. But he added: “This is the message to the guys: Embrace the moment, enjoy the challenge ahead and have some fun.”
So now the Islanders are one win away from a matchup with the Lightning and coach Jon Cooper, who honed his hockey knowledge by going to Islanders games when he was a student at Hofstra. One of his assistants is Steve Thomas, who totaled 17 points in 18 playoff games for the 1993 Islanders. He surely will remember what it was like to win a series at the Coliseum.
The whole postseason was one last bit of magic from Al Arbour. Game 6 against the Capitals was off the charts for passion, made only sharper with the vicious post-goal attack by Dale Hunter on Pierre Turgeon.
Hunter went on to run the junior team in London, Ontario, and was John Tavares’ last pre-NHL coach. He had only good things to tell his 18-year-old star about the Islanders’ franchise.
After years of waiting and more than four hours of hockey in Game 5, Nielsen was asked how it feels to head home, one win away. “It feels,” he said, “like we still have a long way to go.”