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Islanders, fans penning final love letter to Nassau Coliseum: ‘Without them, I don’t know if we could’ve pulled this off’

Islanders Nassau Coliseum
New York Islanders celebrate defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

If I were to show you pictures of the Nassau Coliseum, what would you think of it?

Not much, probably.

Its metallic facade installed in 2016 to cover its mundane cement shell was the equivalent of putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. 

Its concourse is cramped, the bathroom lines are too long, the scoreboard is smaller than some found in minor-league arenas. Don’t even get started on the amenities, either.

Yet it’s this building — which holds a little over 13,000 fans as one of the smallest arenas in hockey — that houses the specters of the last great North American sports dynasty, provides one of the purest hockey-watching experiences in the NHL, and provides the ultimate home-ice advantage for its home team, the New York Islanders. 

And in its final season of hosting this Islanders team before they move to a massive, state-of-the-art home at UBS Arena at Belmont Park this fall, the Coliseum and its impassioned fan base — which will defend the honor of the building nicknamed “The Old Barn” until the very end — are flexing its muscles one last time; and it was on full display this week.

The Islanders finished off their first-round playoff upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night, closing the series out with a 5-3 victory in Game 6 in front of 9,000 fans that sounded like an army of 90,000 — especially when the Islanders rattled off three goals in 2:59 seconds during the second period — awakening the ghosts of glory days past inside a building that had been devoid of such special moments for so long.

Nassau Coliseum saw the Islanders win four-straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. It saw some of the greatest players in the game — Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier — call it home. But it also saw three incredibly lean decades of dysfunctional management and even worse teams, making the playoffs just nine times in 27 years.

Wednesday night’s win that punches a ticket to a second-round meeting with the Boston Bruins was the first time since 1993 that the Islanders clinched a postseason series on the Coliseum’s ice — a just reward for an incredibly patient fan base that had been through the wringer.

“This is a special group, a special place,” Islanders veteran forward Brock Nelson, who scored two of those three quick second-period goals, said. “Probably a lot of fans that were here tonight that witnessed the dynasty back in the 80s and know what that winning feels like. It was fun to get it in front of them. We’re trying to make history of our own.”

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There is a caveat that hinders these Islanders during this last run at the Coliseum — regardless of how much they express a desire to send the Coliseum “off with a bang,” as fourth-liner Cal Clutterbuck said heading into the playoffs.

A detailed, meticulous game requires laser focus to continue exceeding the limited expectations the outside hockey world put on them. Regardless of postseason result, you’ll hear players and coaches alike just minutes after the final buzzer sounds imploring that the proverbial page has already been flipped and they’re focusing on the next game.

But even head coach Barry Trotz — who also preaches to his players the need to enjoy the ride and intensity of playoff hockey — couldn’t help but drink in the moment, which was the word of the day, of Wednesday night’s clincher.

“It’s about moments. This place has a great history,” Trotz said. “I said listen, when you’re older, you can see the moment and you appreciate the moment because you’re getting older and you might not have many moments as a player, a coach, a person in life. This is a moment you don’t want to slip by.

“This is a good moment for that group in there, for the guys who have played in this building a lot, the young guys who are a part of the Islanders… and having success and trying to create hopefully another legacy.”

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Nelson has seen it all with the Islanders.

The eight-year veteran was a rookie when the Islanders finished dead-last in the division in 2014. He moved with the team from the Coliseum to Brooklyn — which lasted just two-plus disastrous years — was a part of a team that finished in seventh of eight teams in the division just four years ago, and starred when the Islanders made an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Final in the COVID bubbles last year.

“It’s been quite a while, quite the journey,” Nelson said. “A couple guys have been here longer than I have… Everyone wants to go out there and win and compete for a Stanley Cup and raise it. To see progress, getting close, it’s fun, it’s a great place to do it. Now we’re trying to go all the way.”

It certainly would be a fitting end to what is becoming the final chapter of a stirring love letter between a team, its faithful fan base, and the humble abode on Hempstead Turnpike that they will take with them for eternity.

And that’s why all involved just have to enjoy the moment.

“There are moments you’re going to enjoy. This was a moment with the crowd the way they were… this was one of those moments you bank in your memory bank,” Trotz said. “When you finish your career, you’ll remember that moment.

“Our fans were fantastic, it was loud. They were into it, we were into it. Without them, I don’t know if we could’ve pulled this off.”

The ultimate compliment for the Islanders’ faithful while also laying the groundwork for their next challenge in the Bruins. After all, only 12 more wins separate them between — and by Trotz and his players’ standards, it’s going to take every member of the Islanders’ nation to truly send the Coliseum out on the sweetest of notes.

 

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