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Islanders' final home opener at Nassau Coliseum is beginning of strange and sad goodbye

A general view before a game between the

A general view before a game between the Islanders and the Boston Bruins on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 at Nassau Coliseum. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It was weird and a little sad. How could it not be weird and a little sad?

But there was nothing the Islanders or anyone else could do about it, so the home team did its best on Monday to look at the bright side of what is expected to be its final home opener at Nassau Coliseum.

"We feel the support of our fans," Anthony Beauvillier said before a 1-0 win over the Bruins. "Even though we were in the bubble for the playoffs, we felt that they were there with us, cheering us on, and it’s going to be the same thing, I think, this year."

There were some fans in the building, sort of.

The Islanders placed cutouts of supporters, among them actor Ralph Macchio, in rows of seats behind the goals. Those so honored paid $85 — or $75 for season-ticket holders — to benefit the Islanders Children’s Foundation.

Beyond that, there were other familiar trappings of sports in the COVID-19 era — tarps covering the lowest rows, loud music and fake cheers to boost the players’ energy, and many thousands of empty seats.

That was the opposite of the charm of the Coliseum, whose obsolescence as an NHL arena is mitigated by the passion of its fans and its great sightlines.

None of that mattered as the Islanders returned for the first time since March 7 and were greeted only by off-ice officials, arena workers, journalists and other non-cheering types.

When the Bruins first took the ice, no one booed.

"I’m sure the fans wish they could be there," Scott Mayfield said before the game, "but it’s just what it is, and that’s one of the things we have to overcome and just focus on playing our game."

The question is whether home ice even matters in a season absent of fans. Typically, playing at home has less impact in the NHL than in the NBA, the other major indoor winter sport. And now?

Even though the Islanders are 1-0, coach Barry Trotz believes home ice is worth nothing at all in 2021.

"I don’t think there’s any advantage in any rink in the National Hockey League right now, to be quite honest with you, just because the fans do have an important effect," he said. "I think we saw that in Madison Square Garden [Thursday and Saturday].

"I mean, it’s quiet in there . . . [Normally] when the Rangers and Islanders are playing, we could be playing at 7 a.m. in the morning, with a full building and the place is going crazy."

Trotz contrasted this situation with the fan-free playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton last summer, which had the buzz created by the stakes and multiple teams gathered in one place.

"This is different," he said. "You’ve got to bring your own sense of emotion, your own game every night. You’re not going to get any help from the atmosphere. You’re not . . . Here, it’s a lonely road out here."

Trotz said he will trust government officials and science with the decision of whether to admit fans later this season. It’s evident that he would like to see that happen.

"Watching the games on TV, even if you have four or five thousand fans in the building, it helps the atmosphere," he said, "and I think the players appreciate it."

There are 27 regular-season games left at the Coliseum before the planned move to UBS Arena this autumn. For now, there is nothing to do but try to be positive.

"It’s a shame," Adam Pelech said, "because I know we all love playing in this building when it’s full of fans. But at this point we’re all used to it, and it looks like it’s the way it’s going to be."

New York Sports