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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Islanders take center stage in the New York sports landscape for this playoff run

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders celebrates

Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders celebrates with Cal Clutterbuck after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup semifinals at Nassau Coliseum on June 19, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Rich Graessle

Let’s be honest, dear reader: There are more people on Long Island who care passionately about the Mets or Yankees than about the Islanders.

But this also is true: The Islanders have not been this well-positioned in nearly 40 years to capture the attention — and support — of New York-area sports fans who do not normally follow them, or hockey in general.

The Rent-a-Nets’ shocking second-round playoff ouster by the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night left only three local teams from the NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL still in season, and only one of them is in the thick of a playoff run.

The Islanders did get within two victories of a Stanley Cup Final last year, which is where they find themselves on Monday night entering Game 5 of a Cup semifinal against the Lightning in Tampa.

But this time is different. In 2020, the Lightning were up 3-1 after four games before the Islanders won Game 5, then fell in Game 6. Now they are tied 2-2 going into Game 5.

The biggest difference is the fact both teams are playing in mostly full home arenas. Last time, they met before no fans in Edmonton – a 38-hour drive from Nassau Coliseum and 41 from Amalie Arena.

Add to that the ongoing story of the Islanders’ final season at the Coliseum, which gives international media a narrative hook, and it is all the better.

The Islanders even are getting support from elsewhere on the local hockey scene. No, not from Rangers fans! But most Devils fans are rooting for the Lou Lamoriello/Travis Zajac/Kyle Palmieri/Andy Greene Islanders.

The timing has been spectacular for the Islanders’ business operation, given that they have been busy selling tickets to UBS Arena, and got the best possible promotional vehicle: winning.

The team announced on Monday that it had sold out general admission season tickets for 2021-22.

For a franchise that forever struggles to be noticed outside its hard-core base, it does not get better than this.

"Each team, I think, in this area has a very tight-knit fan base," Scott Mayfield said on Sunday when asked about the Islanders being the last playoff team standing.

"You look our group that we have of our fans, they’ve gone through a lot, and I think they’re always out there supporting us whether we have a down year or whether we’re in the semifinals, like this year.

"So I don’t give too much thought to it, but yeah, it’s nice to play deep into the postseason. That’s why we play. I think we’re all enjoying it, and I think the fans are enjoying it."

Coach Barry Trotz on Sunday recalled how during the bubble playoffs there was talk of how much fun it would be to mount one last run at the Coliseum itself.

"We’ve gotten that opportunity to do that, and it’s everything that we thought it would be," he said.

Trotz said he feels it and hears it when he runs errands, whether stopping for coffee or filling up his gas tank.

"People are coming over and talking about wishing us good luck," he said, "but what they start talking about is their experience growing up in the Coliseum, going to games with their parents, grandparents or their friends. Getting a chance to relive it again one more time is pretty special.

"Especially coming out of the pandemic where everybody’s been sort of locked up, I think it’s really good medicine for this group, this region, the Island, the organization, everything."

Before Game 5, Trotz discussed how much fun he is having. "I'm probably a lot more relaxed during the playoffs than I am in the regular season," he said, "which seems probably strange to people."

He said the trick is to enjoy it and embrace it. Islanders fans seem to be taking his advice. The rest of the local sports world has taken notice, too.

New York Sports