For one day, at least, it felt like the best of the old times.
A sellout crowd of 13,917 at Nassau Coliseum — the building now officially known as NYCB Live — made the Islanders’ preseason opener feel like a playoff game Sunday afternoon, and the Isles didn’t disappoint, even if the result doesn’t matter.
John Tavares scored in overtime to beat the Flyers, 3-2, sending the crowd home happy from the lone hockey game to be played on Long Island this season.
“It had the atmosphere, even pretty close to what we had in the playoffs,” said Tavares, who also scored in the second period. “It was through the roof in warm-ups. The ‘Let’s go, Islanders’ and ‘Yes Yes Yes’ chants were prominent. This fan base has a tremendous identity and we want to reward that.”
With the air of uncertainty surrounding the team’s future, the game also could have felt like a dry run for a possible return to the Island. Islanders owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin are awaiting the Sept. 28 deadline set by New York State for proposals to be submitted for the development of land at Belmont Park racetrack and a decision on the winning proposal after that.
The Islanders also are negotiating with their Barclays Center landlords on the current lease and will need a place to play on a temporary basis should the team and its partners win the right to develop an arena at Belmont.
Ledecky gregariously shook hands and visited tailgating fans outside the Coliseum.
“[The sellout crowd] means we have an incredible fan base on Long Island, and we ought to recognize that and hear that,” Ledecky told Newsday. “We want fans from the entire metropolitan area. They’re coming from all over and we should be able to honor those fans. They love being back here for this game.”
Ledecky deflected any discussion of the team’s proposal to New York State and the future home of the team.
“We’re continuing to study the RFP process,” he said. “There’s a deadline, Sept. 28, and it’s very interesting what they’re doing with that. But today is about the fans and today is about a guy like John Tavares telling me to go out to the tailgates. He told me that at the captains’ golf outing last week, about how much he enjoys seeing this environment. You can see the twinkle in his eye getting to play this game today.”
Tavares’ happiness is another important part of the Isles’ arena search. The captain has deferred contract extension talks, choosing to play out this final year of his current six-year, $33-million deal and keep the organization and the fans reaching for the Tums. The uncertain future of the Islanders is one part of Tavares’ decision to put off contract talks, so the warm welcome from Sunday’s crowd and the hope of bringing the team back to Long Island definitely can’t hurt.
“It was a lot of fun to be back out here,” said Tavares, who skated with Anders Lee and newly acquired Jordan Eberle. “We know what this place means to really everybody that’s involved with the Islanders, so it was a lot of fun. There was a lot of emotion out there. We got a little extra time to extend it as long as we could. A lot of people out there this morning, driving in was pretty cool. Tried to knock the rust off and at the same time take it all in.”
Mathew Barzal scored the other Islanders goal to tie it in the third period.
The Islanders will face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Monday night and return to Barclays Center for two more preseason games. They will have the memories of a most unusual preseason game to carry along.
“You have to love the passion of the fans,” Ledecky said. “Walking through the parking lot, the tailgating, everybody is so happy to be here. I’ve heard nothing but great things from people.”