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A long, strange trip for the Isles, the Coliseum and the fans

The Islanders celebrate after defeating the Buffalo Sabres

The Islanders celebrate after defeating the Buffalo Sabres at NYCB Live on Saturday, March 30, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Now that we have had time to get accustomed to the idea, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Islanders’ return to NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum — concurrent with a revival on the ice — is the coolest, strangest story in the NHL.

Monday’s regular-season home finale was a disappointing 2-1 loss to the Maple Leafs, but it also was a good time to step back and note the bigger picture before the playoffs begin and all that matters is final scores.

A home venue that seemed dead and buried after one last home win, in Game 6 of a first-round 2015 playoff series against Barry Trotz’s Capitals, instead lives on after a 3 ½-year hiatus.

Now Trotz coaches the Islanders and one of the Leafs’ stars is former Islanders captain John Tavares, who was the first star of Monday night’s game.

Things will get even weirder if the Islanders advance and go back to Brooklyn for the second round and beyond.

It’s something out of the early 20th century, like when the Rangers played the entire 1928 Stanley Cup Final in Montreal because the circus was at the Garden.

Only this time the issue is not lions and tigers, but rather fat cats in corporate suites at Barclays Center.

But I digress. Back to Uniondale. The drama this week will center on whether the Islanders can secure home ice for a playoff series for the first time since 1988, likely against the Penguins.

That would be impressive, but truth is, home ice is not a huge factor in the NHL playoffs. And even the Coliseum is not that much of an edge compared with Barclays. The Isles are 12-7-2 at the Coliseum and 12-6-2 in Brooklyn.

What really matters about the two, three or four games they will play on Long Island in these playoffs is that it is a proper reward for their fans.

There was a time over the winter, during a stretch of eight out of nine games at the Coliseum, when empty seats started to appear, and the novelty of the homecoming seemed to lose a bit of luster.

But the place showed what it can be like on nights such as the first game back against Columbus in December, Tavares’ first game back in February and the playoff clincher against Buffalo on Saturday.

The mood was more subdued two days later, and it was far more subdued than for Tavares’ first visit. That night, the dial on the vitriol meter was turned up to 11. This time it was closer to a 2, even after Tavares scored in the third period to make it 2-0.

After the Islanders got within a goal late in the third, the final five minutes were frantic on the ice and off, one last noisy sendoff into the postseason.

“The fans were great again tonight with their intensity, and the atmosphere was fantastic,” Matt Martin said.

Trotz was barely audible in a shorter-than-usual postgame news conference, the voice he partially lost amid the din on Saturday now all but gone.

In the afterglow Saturday, he had said, “I’m a little bit old- school; I like the old-school buildings. They’ve got the vibe. The great thing is [the fans] are on top of you.”

The coach, who won the Cup with the Capitals in June, said he could relate to the strangeness of it all, in a positive way.

“My life in the last four years is probably surreal in some ways, all the different events we’ve had to go through,” he said. “I’m glad this building is back and running and back on the Island, where it should be and where the majority of the fan base is. You see the passion.  It’s got a great vibe, and to me, it just feels right.”

The next game in the spiffed-up old rink will be a playoff game. It feels right indeed.

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