The Blackhawks arrived fresh off yet another appearance under the wide-open sky, secure in their status as a National Hockey League marketing staple. What was waiting for them under the low latticed roof of Nassau Coliseum was something even more impressive: the Islanders, the league’s best story.
You won’t see the Islanders in the Winter Classic, the Jan. 1 centerpiece in which Chicago has played four times (all losses, including one at Notre Dame’s football stadium Tuesday). But at this moment, there is no team as fetching, quirky and compelling as the one that plays (most of the time now) on Long Island.
No one else can match the mix of nostalgia, excitement, bitterness, uncertainty and hope that the Islanders have put together in a season that looks a whole lot better than we thought it would.
Few saw this coming, this stretch of five straight wins and eight in nine games, the latest a 3-2 overtime victory over Chicago on Thursday claimed by an overtime goal by minor-league call-up Devon Toews, who never had scored in the NHL before.
“I don’t think I ever dreamed about it,” he said. “Growing up, it was more just trying to make the NHL and make that dream come true. I never thought about scoring or anything.”
The anything-is-possible motif is courtesy of coach Barry Trotz, who spent roughly half of 2018 winning the Stanley Cup in Washington and the other half lighting a fire under a franchise that seemed to have lost its wick when captain and superstar John Tavares left.
“It’s been very interesting, it’s been enlightening, it’s been fulfilling, it’s been a challenge,” Trotz said. “It’s been all of the above. Everything that life has to bring, I’ve had all of it. The good, bad and ugly in a lot of ways. That’s what makes coaching and life interesting because it’s not the same thing every day.”
Heading the category of “interesting” is the case of Mathew Barzal. There was every reason to wonder how good he really was, as he was able to ride through his rookie year under Tavares’ radar. Could he really be a legitimate No. 1 center?
To quote his fans: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Barzal was named the team’s All-Star representative Wednesday, and he celebrated by scoring goals in the first and second periods Thursday. He has confidence in himself and in everyone who wears the crest he will be proud to represent at All-Star Weekend in San Jose.
“You can kind of tell before a game, this is one of the coolest locker rooms I’ve been in. Just the dynamic, with younger guys, older guys,” he said.
The oldest figure is the real star of the Islanders’ drama. That would be the Coliseum, which was buzzing and jumping again. After Barzal’s second goal, the crowd launched its favorite new anti-Tavares chant. There is no venue remotely like it in pro sports. The move back to the Isles’ ancestral home has been more than a shot in the arm. It is more like a total-body makeover.
In the same vein, there is that one other notable distinction in this Islanders season: a transformation from the leakiest defensive sieve in 2017-18 into the team that, entering play Thursday, had allowed the fewest goals in the league (102).
“I know that if I was on the other team playing against some of my teammates,” Barzal said, “I know I’d have a tough time.”
The toughest part is attracting notice outside of Long Island. The outdoor Winter Classic is a TV show, and we all know that the first rule of network television is to put on programming that garnered ratings in the past, whether it be the Blackhawks or an ossified Murphy Brown redux.
Still, the Islanders have more intriguing moving parts than anyone else in the NHL. “We’re just in a groove,” Toews said. “Everybody is playing for each other.”
The roof in their home rink may be low, but their entertainment-value ceiling is sky high.