Saturday night was always going to be about the fans regardless of how the Islanders performed on the ice.
After three decades of arena drama that threatened the team’s very existence near the New York metropolitan area, the doors of UBS Arena — a $1.1 billion state-of-the-art home built for the Islanders — opened.
The Islanders kept to the all-too-familiar script of dropping the first game in their new home, having done so in 1972 against the Atlanta Flames and in 2014 against the Chicago Blackhawks — though the 5-2 result against the now-Calgary Flames was almost expected with six skaters entering the league’s COVID-19 protocols.
Even amid a five-game losing streak extended with key veterans sidelined, and with their immediate schedule facing uncertainty due to their run-in with the virus, the magnitude of Saturday night was not lost on the Islanders.
“It was great,” Smithtown native and Islanders winger Kyle Palmieri said. “Having grown up in this area, playing in this division for the last six or seven years [with the New Jersey Devils], it’s a home these fans deserve.
“It’s an incredible building, the atmosphere was electric. Not the results we were looking for, but the fans showed up, they were excited to be here.”
As the Islanders spent the entire night unsuccessfully trying to play catchup, 17,255 fans were hurdled into the 21st century as UBS Arena provided all the creature comforts of a modern-day sporting venue while still maintaining the intimate, eardrum-shattering atmosphere that became a calling card of the team’s former home at the Nassau Coliseum; an outdated arena stuck 45 years in the past despite a recent face-lift. Though the sightlines and pure hockey-watching experience were second to none.
“What a great atmosphere,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “This is a new-school building that feels old-school when you’re out on the ice.”
The hockey world got a glimpse of it when Brock Nelson potted his second goal of the night to pull the Islanders within one early in the third period.
“It’s huge. We have a home now,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “We’ve talked about it leading up to it with what guys have gone through. Brooklyn, split seasons, closing out the Coliseum… it’s special to be home. Especially the fans who were here tonight to see what this building is… it’s one of the best in the league.
“It feels like the [Coliseum] but it’s state of the art. I hope the fans really enjoy it.”
And the fans will hope that the Islanders enjoy it, too. The clock is already ticking for the Stanley Cup semifinalists two years running as they sit in last in the Metropolitan Division after limping through a 13-game season-opening road trip while UBS Arena was being completed.
“All in all, excited to be home and it’s the start of something that’ll be great for us,” Nelson said.