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From front-line workers in stands to Islanders, everyone grateful for mini-reunion at Nassau Coliseum

Islanders fans celebrate a second-period goal by Josh

Islanders fans celebrate a second-period goal by Josh Bailey against the Devils at the Nassau Coliseum on March 11. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

Tara Laumenede got the news while she was watching the Rangers game on Sunday night. Wait . . . the Rangers?

"Not because I’m a Ranger fan, obviously," she said, "but because if they were going to win [over the Penguins] it would put the Islanders in a better position [in the standings]."

Such is the level of Islanders’ fans passion, and why it was so welcome to have at least some of them at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday night for the first time in 369 days.

But for Laumenede, one of four people to drop the ceremonial first puck – via a prerecorded video – and many of her colleagues, it was extra special.

She was one of the 1,000 Northwell Health front-line workers and their families the Islanders invited to the game against the Devils to mark the return of fans to the Barn.

Next Thursday, 1,391 paying customers will be admitted, another step toward normalcy on the road back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Laumenede, deputy chief nursing officer at North Shore University Hospital, already knew she had a ticket to the game, but it was not until Sunday night that she learned about the puck-drop.

"I nearly hit the floor," she said. "It was fantastic. I’m a big Islander fan, and my family, my husband [Jack] and my two daughters [Meaghan and Kerri] are big Islanders fans."

Laumenede and her friends got what they came for in the form of a 5-3 victory.

Even with a relatively few fans in the house, goals were followed by the familiar "Yes! Yes! Yes!" chant.

The crowd even could be heard weighing in on the evening’s worst moment by far – when captain Anders Lee went down with what looked like a potentially serious right leg injury in the first period.

Had it happened on Tuesday, Lee would have suffered in silence. This time, he left the ice to encouraging cheers.

The Islanders do not seem to have suffered from playing in empty arenas, given how well they did in the playoff bubble in Toronto last summer and their 12-0-2 record at Nassau Coliseum entering Thursday night.

But to a man, they said they were eager to have people back in the stands after all these months. The fact this is the final season at the Coliseum added to the significance.

"I think the building deserves to have people in it," coach Barry Trotz said before the game. "The last year of it, it will only be fitting that we have someone in there, because it’s an iconic building and it has a lot of memories for everybody, and having the health care workers in there, that’s extra special."

Before the game Mathew Barzal said, "I’m excited. I’ve been waiting a while here, whether it’s 10 fans or a thousand fans or 15,000 fans. It’s just nice to have some people in the building and hear some voices."

Northwell is a major sponsor of the Islanders, which explains why its workers were chosen. But the honor extends to everyone in the medical business who has helped the rest of us through the past year.

Laumenede recalled the blur of long hours and dangerous work in the early months. "Every day was just ‘day,’ " she said. "There was no Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. There was no weekend. It was just ‘day.’ "

Then came Thursday, which did not feel like other days, as the visitors enjoyed a break from the routine, and another Islanders victory. "It’s a great honor and we are so appreciative of that," Laumenede said.

Like most fans, she knows she will miss the Coliseum. But UBS Arena also has its perks. It is less than a mile from her home in Floral Park.

Later this year, she plans to check it out – perhaps by walking there.

New York Sports