The newly introduced sound of cheers was warranted.
The East Division-leading Islanders spent the first two periods thoroughly outplaying the Devils and won, 5-3, on Thursday night in front of 1,000 Northwell Health front-line workers and their families, the first fans at Nassau Coliseum since March 7, 2020.
"It’s a special night in general having people back and being healthcare workers," said defenseman Ryan Pulock as the Islanders made them their guests in appreciation of their work and sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic. "It changes the game, the energy. Seeing faces in the crowd. It brings some normalcy back."
The only downer was the potential long-term loss of ironman captain Anders Lee, who suffered an apparent right leg injury in the first period. The team did not have an immediate update on Lee.
The Islanders (17-6-4) concluded a five-game homestand on a seven-game winning streak and a 9-0-1 streak overall. They are 12-0-2 at home and 1-0-0 in front of their fans.
"I think the people that were in the stands tonight made it extra special," said Matt Martin, who opened the scoring at 3:15 of the first period. "Just all the work and the sacrifices that they’ve made over the last year. I can’t imagine the amount of long hours and sleepless nights they went through. We’re grateful for them."
Rookie Ilya Sorokin (19 saves) faced only 12 shots through the first two periods. But he yielded goals within 40 seconds early in the third period, forcing coach Barry Trotz to call his timeout at 4:03 as the Devils closed to 4-2 on Mikhail Maltsev’s innocent backhander from the right circle.
The Islanders’ final 20 minutes also included a failed four-minute power play after defenseman Ryan Murray cut Casey Cizikas’ lip with a high stick at 6:12. The Islanders were 0-for-5 on the man advantage despite the Devils’ penalty kill ranking last in the NHL.
"We tried to look for an easy game," Trotz said. "What was successful for us for two periods is playing the right way and we started being a little bit light on our stick, not managing the puck."
Brock Nelson regained a 5-2 lead at 4:44 before Jack Hughes ended the scoring at 15:52.
The Islanders’ first game in front of fans — a sellout of 1,800 — was a 2-1 win at Prudential Center on March 2 as the Devils opened their doors for the first time to a crowd limited to 10% of that building’s capacity.
Their first game in front of paying season-ticket holders will be next Thursday against the Flyers. The Coliseum is allowed to host at 10% of capacity, so 1,391 tickets were made available.
The Islanders clearly seemed energized with fans in the stands, taking a quick 2-0 lead on Adam Pelech’s wrister from the left point at 9:54 with Devils defenseman Dmitry Kulikov inadvertently tripping Mackenzie Blackwood (29 saves).
Defenseman Noah Dobson was credited with the goal to make it 3-0 at 14:05 of the second period as Devils defenseman Damon Severson knocked it past Blackwood. The Devils unsuccessfully challenged for goalie interference after defenseman Sami Vatanen knocked rookie Oliver Wahlstrom over Blackwood.
"We just wanted to keep pressing," said Josh Bailey, who extended the lead to 4-0 at 17:13 of the second period after Blackwood robbed him with his left toe at 1:04. "You’re never comfortable in a game. I think we saw that in the third, they found a way to get a couple. We did a good job of that in the first two periods and, in the third, gave them a little more than we would have liked."