Islanders ready to open UBS Arena, turn around sluggish start

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The Islanders will finally play at home Saturday night when they open UBS Arena against the Flames. It will have been 150 days since their fans saw them in person — Stanley Cup Semifinals Game 6 versus Tampa Bay — and the day the franchise has been waiting for couldn’t arrive at a better time.

As work continued on the Islanders’ new rink, the team faced a 13-game road trip to begin the 2021-22 NHL season. The players didn’t need to worry about hotel life the entire time as they were able to return home to get some needed days off through the first six weeks of the schedule.

While Saturday will be a new beginning in their 17,250-seat, $1.1 billion arena, the home-ice advantage will take some time to develop.

“It really won’t be our home rink for a while,” said Islanders head coach Barry Trotz. “Calgary will have been in that rink pretty well as long as we have. It’s like a neutral-site game for the first month. But we’re thrilled that we’re getting into a new rink. It’s great for the fans and it’s great for the franchise.”

The Islanders held their first practice at UBS Arena on Thursday and had the same experience anyone would when going inside a building for the first time. Finding their way to team-specific areas like the dressing room and offices required directions after a few wrong turns. 

[MORE: Islanders limp to end of road trip]

But finally being in the new rink — their new home — after years at Nassau Coliseum and a short stint at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center could re-energize a team sorely needing a boost after losing four in a row.

“It was cool,” Trotz said of Thursday’s practice. “The best I can describe it to anybody is it felt like the Winter Classic, those NHL [Stadium] Series games. It’s got a different feel. There’s a little pep in the step.”

“We haven’t had a chance to play a home game yet this year and you know how much we feed off our crowd and how much of an impact they have on our games at home,” said captain Anders Lee. “We’ve seen it in the playoffs, the regular season, so now we get to be back in front of them and after that it’s a brand-new building that this franchise has been looking forward to for a really long time.”

A 5-6-2 start has landed the Islanders at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. After winning five of seven games in the middle of their season-opening road trip, the four losses before coming home is not what Trotz wanted to see. But coming home with 14 of their next 20 games at UBS Arena and only 28 out of their final 69 regular season games on the road could help them regain form to build off back-to-back seasons making the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“What I found is it’s been harder to sustain momentum because you don’t have a crowd behind you,” Trotz said. “We haven’t had, really, a rhythm. We’ve played some games and then they send us home for a few days and then we’d go back on the road. Then we had a big break. It’s probably set some of our players out of sorts.

“I’ve had harder times in terms of schedules with number of games. But I think it’s just more the rhythm than anything.”

Missing Bailey

Josh Bailey has played the third-most games in franchise history and is currently the longest-tenured Islander after being selected ninth overall in the 2008 NHL Draft. Earlier this season he passed Bobby Nystrom to move into 10th all-time in points with the team.

He’s a franchise staple, but unfortunately he will not be a part of Saturday’s celebrations. Bailey remains in Florida in COVID-19 protocol after testing positive before Tuesday’s loss to the Panthers. While he is asymptomatic, he will remain in a hotel until he’s cleared to reunite with the team.

“It sucks. I feel for him,” Lee said of Bailey’s absence. “If there’s anyone that deserves to open us this building, it’s Josh. It’ll be tough not to have him with us and I know he’s going to make his mark on this building when he gets a chance when comes out of [quarantine]. We can’t wait to have him back.”

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The day is finally arrives

The Lighthouse Project. Willets Point. Replacing the Coliseum. Barclays Center. Back to the Coliseum.

The last 20 years have been a ride for Islanders fans, and the journey towards a permanent home of their own has come with plenty of ups and downs. But those worries vanished once new ownership took over under Jon Ledecky and Scott Mallkin and groundbreaking on UBS Arena began in September 2019.

Now to go along with a new home the franchise has taken steps to make the on-ice product a consistent winner. The Islanders have been part of the postseason three years in a row. The last time they did that was 2002-2004.

A new era begins for the Islanders franchise on Saturday, and while the festivities will be memorable, turning around their sluggish start is where their focus will be concentrated.

“Hopefully it gives us some energy right now,” Trotz said. “I don’t think you can go in our room and anybody feels really great about anything, other than we got this road trip done. We’re hoping that we can get that energy [and] we’ll hopefully get our own game. We can only fix that, the fans can’t. 

“We’ve got too many pieces missing right now in terms of our game that we can have any success. … It’s on us. We can’t fix it unless we’re all committed to it. That’s everybody, it’s not one or two guys. It’s everybody.”

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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.