History will not record it as the first Islanders playoff game at UBS Arena. But the players and fans who were a part of it knew the deal, and it sure felt like one.
Facing what essentially was an elimination game, the Islanders did what they had to do on Wednesday night, beating the Canadiens, 4-2, to clinch a wild-card spot.
And they did it before a jazzed but tense crowd that knew the stakes and acted accordingly.
It was a hockey party unlike any previously seen at the new barn. When it was over, the scoreboard at center ice said it all in big, bold, white letters: “CLINCHED.”
The Islanders will play their first official playoff game at their two-seasons-old arena in Game 3 of a first-round series against either the Bruins or Hurricanes.
“The crowd was great,” captain Anders Lee said. “Looking forward to hearing them in the playoffs. They really brought it this evening, and that’s huge.”
Said Zach Parise, “It was awesome. It was a great atmosphere in there and I think we’re all as a team looking forward to that carrying over into the postseason.”
Wednesday night’s fun will not change the fact there is work to do on Lou Lamoriello’s aging, less-than-fast roster, or the fact anything other than a deep playoff run would be difficult to spin as a positive season.
But before all that let us take a moment to acknowledge the Islanders’ immediate accomplishment, which deserves a stick tap.
This was a team that, after a 2-8-3 stretch to start the new calendar year, found itself six points out of a playoff spot and looked hopeless.
At the time, I wrote that “Lamoriello and his band of aging Islanders deserve the opportunity to somehow wriggle out of this mess.”
And this: “No one should expect this team to go quietly, not after all it has been through in recent years.”
It did not, even after losing its most dynamic skater, Mathew Barzal, on Feb. 18.
Lamoriello made moves, notably acquiring Bo Horvat from the Canucks, key players returned from injury, notably Adam Pelech, and it was just enough.
“We made a commitment to putting ourselves in the position to have the opportunity we had tonight, and we did that,” Lee said.
“Guys put in a lot of work, we played extremely hard and we got our foot in the door, a seat at the table . . . We knew we had a hill to climb.”
Parise said, “We potentially got written off a little bit when Barzy went down, and we rallied and put together a pretty good record from them on to put ourselves in this spot.”
It appeared the Islanders had blown it on Monday.
They gave up control of their playoff future by losing, 5-2, to a Capitals team that had lost six games in row. Inexplicable.
Then came Tuesday night, when something even less explicable happened.
The Penguins, now in control, lost at home to lowly Chicago, 5-2, a team presumed to be angling for the worst record in the NHL to help its draft position.
Nope. Pittsburgh had to win and lost, endangering its 16-year playoff streak. Chicago had to lose and won.
“Crazy how fast things can change,” Noah Dobson said. “Leaving Washington, it was a complete 180 to how we’re feeling tonight.”
With four minutes left on Wednesday, Lee’s power-play goal made it 4-2, and the celebration was on. Fans rose and began a loud chorus of “Let’s go, Islanders!”
The Islanders could have lost and still made the playoffs if the Penguins lost to the Blue Jackets on Thursday, but it was far better this way.
Montreal came into the game with a 31-43-6 record, with one victory in its last five games and having been outscored 15-1 in its three most recent losses.
The Islanders escaped the trap this time, and now it is on to the playoffs.
There is no time to waste for Lamoriello’s experienced crew, which has been aiming all season for another run at a Stanley Cup before time catches up with them.
The clincher did not solve all their problems. Not even close. But after getting a gift on Tuesday, the Islanders were not about to return it on Wednesday.
“I’m sure you could point to a lot of different times in the season that got us here,” Parise said. “But here we are.”