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Atmosphere on display as Islanders return to Nassau Coliseum

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The New York Islanders knew what to expect. As the players and staff drove home from Saturday morning’s skate at their practice facility not far from Nassau Coliseum, they saw fans already in the arena parking lot tailgating, preparing for the team’s return to the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike.

When the players hit the ice for warmups, the noise inside the building rose in a mostly-packed arena with Let’s Go Islanders chants belted out like the old days.

When Casey Cizikas broke a 2-2 tie 7:09 into the third period, completely erasing a 2-0 lead the Columbus Blue Jackets once had, the deafening roar of the Coliseum crowd evoked memories of the team’s 43-year run before moving to Barclays Center in 2015.

“It’s fun playing hockey when you go out there like that and there’s that energy, there’s that momentum,” said Islanders captain Anders Lee. “We knew it was going to be special.”

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Back for the first of 21 games this season, the Islanders returned to Long Island and to the Coliseum Saturday night. As part of a split schedule, the team is calling two arenas home this season.

Barclays Center has been since their rink since the 2015-16 season, but in an effort to find a permanent solution in “Islanders Country,” the team’s new ownership won the bid to build an arena near Belmont Park race track, which is set to open in time for the 2021-22 NHL season. While they wait, the team will play 61 of its home games over the next three seasons at the Coliseum, which has undergone a $165M renovation.

The Islanders have been back at the Coliseum since moving to Barclays, but the two preseason games couldn’t come close to the atmosphere that was inside the building during a memorable comeback win. 

There was a different energy inside, one that’s impossible to replicate at Barclays Center. The Islanders were back and supplied an another memory for the 13,917 in attendance to take away following a trip back to what was once dubbed “Fort Neverlose.”

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It had been 1,316 days between meaningful Islanders games at the Coliseum. Cal Clutterbuck’s empty-net goal to seal Game 6 against the Washington Capitals in the first-round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs was the final one in the building before the move. 

The head coach on the other bench that game was Barry Trotz. He saw first-hand how the atmosphere provided by the fans in the Coliseum affected the players, which is why he started the line of Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, three of nine players who were on the ice that night against the Capitals. The trio brought their physical edge to the game’s opening shift, with both the fans and players feeding off each other’s energy.

Cizikas’ involvement was evident all night, and it was fitting that it was his goal that stood as the game winner and completed the comeback.

“I had a lot of emotions running through my body,” he said afterward. “I was more tired from screaming on the celebration than I was from the actual shift.”

***

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella has coached a lot of games at the Coliseum, but none were more memorable than the ones he was involved with while coaching the New York Rangers. The division rivals are known for their spirited meetings that see the on-ice emotions spill over into the crowd.

“The things that were going on in the stands, it was better than the game sometimes,” Tortorella said. “When other teams come in here, they don’t experience that. That Ranger-Islander game, no matter what building — MSG or here — they’re a blast to play in. It’s when hockey was hockey. The stuff going on in the stands was just incredible.”

Tortorella and the Blue Jackets played in the original final regular season game at the Coliseum in April 2015, but there were no tears shed or final goodbyes given at the end of that game as the Islanders still had a playoff matchup against the Capitals awaiting them. The head coach was glad to be back three years later.

“This building has seen some tremendous games and some tremendous players have played in here,” he said. “I’m glad we’re the first team doing it with them because I do think when they’re charged up, the crowd’s charged up, I think it helps the visiting team, too.”

***

From the pre-game tailgating to the Let’s Go Islanders car honks in the parking lot to the YES YES YES chants to the appearances of franchise legends Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom and Ed Westfall, it was a nostalgic return on an emotional night. The players couldn’t stop talking about the atmosphere afterward, praising the fans and speaking glowingly about being able to be back on that Coliseum ice.

Martin is the second-longest tenured Islander behind Josh Bailey with 452 of his 584 career games coming with New York. He made his NHL debut on the Coliseum ice in 2010 and quickly made himself a fan favorite. It was a difficult decision for the franchise to watch him leave for Toronto, but when it was clear the Maple Leafs were looking to move him over the summer, it was pretty easy to see where he’d find a perfect fit and be welcomed back with open arms.

Being able to start Saturday’s night game and feed off the vibe in the arena was something Martin won’t forget.

“It’s a rambunctious group. It’s awesome,” said Martin. “They’re so fun to play in front of. … It’s the best building I’ve ever played in.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Vatrano’s four-point night; Laviolette earns win No. 600

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Three Stars

1. Frank Vatrano, Florida Panthers: Continuing his career year, Vatrano notched his 16th goal and added three assists as the Panthers beat the San Jose Sharks 6-2. The score was knotted at two as the third period began but goals from Keith Yandle and Vincent Trocheck nine seconds apart blew the game open in the Panthers’ favor. Aleksander Barkov chipped in with three helpers of his own. According to the NHL, Vatrano is the third undrafted player in franchise history to record a four-point game, joining Steve Reinprecht and Jesse Belanger.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: The Finnish netminder turned aside 35 of 36 shots he faced as Nashville downed the Colorado Avalanche 4-1. The win snapped Rinne’s three-game losing streak and helped Predators head coach Peter Laviolette earn his 600th NHL victory. Nick Bonino recorded his 100th career goal and now has four goals in his last four games. Nashville has won 12 of its last 13 regular-season games against Colorado.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild: Staal scored his 15th of the season and later helped set up Charlie Coyle‘s game-winning goal during a 4-2 Wild victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. Devan Dubnyk made 30 saves and has stopped 64 of his last 67 shots faced. Minnesota is now 4-0-1 against Vegas and are one of two teams (St. Louis) without a regulation loss against the reigning Western Conference champions.

Highlights of the Night

Pretty little goal here from Viktor Arvidsson, who leads all NHL players with 10 goals since the calendar turned to 2019:

Paul LaDue‘s first goal since October was the difference as the Kings topped the Blues:

Congrats to Mackenzie MacEachern for scoring his first NHL goal in the Blues loss:

One heck of an effort by Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise to help set up Mikko Koivu‘s empty-netter:

Justin Braun‘s going to want another shot at this one:

Factoids of the Night

• Via the AP: Laviolette is the 20th coach in NHL history to each 600 career wins and third this season joining John Tortorella and Claude Julien.

• Per the NHL, birthday boy Jonathan Quick recorded his 302nd victory, which is fourth-best among U.S.-born goaltenders. He’s now 67 behind Tom Barrasso.

• Also per the NHL, Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers is the 13th defenseman in the League’s modern era (since 1943-44) to record at least 10 goals in each of his first five seasons.

Scores
Predators 4, Avalanche 1
Kings 4, Blues 3
Wild 4, Golden Knights 2
Panthers 6, Sharks 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

LaDue’s third-period goal helps Kings edge Blues

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The Los Angeles Kings will head into the NHL All-Star break and their bye week on a winning note following a 4-3 come-from-behind victory against the St. Louis Blues Monday.

Paul LaDue, who hadn’t played for the Kings since Dec. 29, scored 9:53 into the third period to snap a 3-3 tie and give the LA the lead — a lead they would not relinquish.

The Blues entered the game on a positive swing after grabbing points in six of their previous seven games. Goaltender Jordan Binnington has been a difference-maker (4-0-1, .954 SV%, 1.19 GAA) since taking the No. 1 reins from Jake Allen. 

It was a good start for St. Louis as Mackenzie MacEachern tallied his first NHL goal late in the opening period and Oskar Sundqvist followed up 8:18 later to give the Blues a 2-0 lead.

The good times were short-lived for the Blues as Tyler Toffoli got LA on the board 15 seconds after Sundqvist’s goal and the Kings used the second period to flip the script. Goals from Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty changed the scoreline to the home teams’ favor. But while they were on good behavior for most of the game, a Dion Phaneuf cross-check opened the door and gave Ryan O’Reilly the room to fire home the tying goal on the ensuing power play.

The loss was the sixth time this season that a 2-0 lead for St. Louis ended up as a defeat.

Birthday boy Jonathan Quick made 33 saves to earn his 302nd career victory, which moves him past Mike Richter and into fourth place on the NHL’s list of most wins by a U.S. born goaltender.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Oilers bet on Koskinen with three-year extension

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The Edmonton Oilers have apparently made a decision on their goaltending for the next three years. On Monday, the team announced that they’ve extended Mikko Koskinen for three years with total salary of $13.5M.

“We are excited to have signed Mikko to a three-year contract extension through the 2022 season,” said Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli. “Mikko has a lot of experience as a number one goalie and has performed well both internationally and for our club.”

That $4.5M salary cap hit means that Cam Talbot, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, will likely be moving on after the season. Koskinen has a .918 even strength save percentage in 27 games this season after spending the last seven seasons in the KHL and Finland.

Per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Koskinen will make $5.2M next season, $3.3M with a $500,000 signing bonus in 2020-2021, and $4.5M in 2021-22.

Where did this extension come from? Koskinen’s recent numbers haven’t been strong (.906 ESSV% since Jan. 1) and it’s not like there was going to be a strong market for a soon-to-be 31-year-old goaltender with mediocre numbers come free agency in July. The worst part of this for the Oilers is that there is a very good chance Chiarelli isn’t in his job come October, so the next general manager of the team will inherit this contract.

Was there a rush to lock up a starter for next season and beyond for the Oilers? Was Chiarelli thinking Koskinen’s price would rocket up if he played well over the final three months of the regular season? What is Talbot’s status as the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches? Is he now, along with forward Jesse Puljujarvi, a piece of trait bait to shore up one of their numerous holes?

The Oilers are only three points out of a Western Conference wild card spot, and with jobs on the line, as well as the pressure of season ticket renewals approaching, there’s a full-on playoff push by the organization and an attempt to set up their future in a positive way. But given the previous decisions of the current regime, don’t bet on it.

MORE: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Power Rankings: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

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It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.