Home-arena advantage traditionally has been less of a factor in the NHL than in its winter sports counterpart, the NBA. But throw in a relative lack of travel and a relative lack of on-site fans and, well, does it really matter at all this season?
For the Islanders, the answer seems to be an emphatic "yes!"
Entering Thursday night’s game against the Capitals at Nassau Coliseum, they were 19-2-2 at home — for a league-best 40 home-ice points — and were 10-11-2 on the road.
That’s just . . . weird.
Contrast that with the Capitals’ 14-6-2 at home and 15-7-2 on the road, a virtually even split.
Why? No one really knows, but the two Islanders who spoke to reporters before the game took a stab at it.
"I think everyone in the locker room likes playing at the Coli," Michael Dal Colle said. "There’s so much history there, and ever since I came in my first stint [in 2018], we’ve just seemed to play really well in that building.
"So it’s carried over to this year, and like I said everyone enjoys playing there and we seem to play really well. Hopefully, we can keep that trend going."
Kyle Palmieri, a longtime Coliseum visitor until being acquired in a trade with the Devils earlier this month, said, "It’s incredible. Obviously, a record like that speaks for itself.
"I think playing here as a visiting team, I always had an appreciation for the atmosphere at the Coliseum, and now being here as part of the Islanders, it’s been incredible.
"It’s limited capacity, but they’re a passionate fan base and it’s an awesome opportunity for me to be able to play in front of them."
This is a matter of more than professional pride in playing well at home.
The top four teams in the East Division are tightly bunched, so seedings are up for grabs.
If the Islanders finish in second place, they can secure home-ice advantage at least for the first round. If they finish first, they will have it through the first two rounds.
Entering Thursday night, the Islanders and Capitals were tied for first place with 62 points, but the Caps had a couple of tiebreaker edges.
So, again, the stretch run has meaning beyond mere standings status. And on top of the hockey implications, there is the subplot that this is the last season of the Islanders’ Coliseum era.
They thrilled fans by reaching the conference finals last season in playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. A deep run that includes games at the Coliseum would be more fun for all concerned.
Dal Colle said of beating out the Capitals and finishing first, "Obviously, that’s the goal at the beginning of the season. We knew Washington was going to be right there."
The game Thursday was the first of three in a row between coach Barry Trotz’s current and most recent past teams, the latest in a series of two-game and three-game mini-series that are a quirk of this COVID-19-shaped season.
Trotz said by this point there is not much mystery left between the rivals.
"It becomes a little bit of a chess match, but you look at it, you end up playing them eight times this year and you’re going to have pretty good book on them," he said.
"Then you might have to play them another seven times in the playoffs, so that’s 15 times. You should know them by then."
But as in the real estate business, location counts. Before Thursday, the Islanders had won both games between the teams on Long Island, and the Capitals had won all three in Washington.
Saturday’s game is back at the Coliseum. Tuesday’s is in D.C. Draw your own conclusions.
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