EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — This season has played out beyond the dreams of New York Islanders fans through 49 games. The team sits in first place seven months to the day that John Tavares announced he would be leaving to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they’ve added their old home, Nassau Coliseum, to 21 dates on the schedule, which has resulted in plenty of nostalgia and wins.
As the Islanders prepare to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning Friday night on Long Island, they look to build off their 5-1-1 record at the renovated Coliseum, the place they left for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center after the 2014-15 season.
The atmosphere that made the Coliseum a beloved place to play for the franchise from 1972-2005 didn’t miss a beat when they played their first game of the season there in December, a 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“The Coliseum is a big part of the identity of this team,” said forward Matt Martin. “A lot of history there. You can feel it when you’re in there.”
As the Islanders await the ceremony where they’ll break ground on a new rink near Belmont race track which is expected to be ready for the 2021-22 season, they’ll play 14 of their final 17 home games this season at the Coliseum. Where will they play should the Stanley Cup Playoffs become a reality in the spring? That’s still up in the air, but no one is getting ahead of themselves yet.
“I’d like to get in it before I worry about that,” said general manager Lou Lamoriello. “That’s not on anybody’s mind right now. That’ll come at the appropriate time. The NHL will be involved in that.”
The switch to the Coliseum has made life for players much easier. Their practice facility is less than a mile away and with most of the players living on Long Island, their gameday commute is cut down dramatically, allowing them extra time with their families or an extended pre-game nap.
The atmosphere is the trait of the Coliseum that is known league-wide. With a capacity of 13,917, which is cut down from its original 16,297 before the renovation, the volume is noticeable, and according to Martin, who played the first six seasons of his NHL career in the building, it still exists.
“It feels similar. That building’s always been really loud,” he said. “I don’t think you really notice that there’s less seats. It’s got a little bit of a makeover on it. It always felt like the fans were right on top of you. That’s the great thing about old buildings.
“Everything’s being built bigger and wide and deeper and more expensive and for multi-purpose. To me, those old buildings, just that on-top-of-you feeling, you’ve got people right in your face all game and you hear the crowd and you feed off the crowd. It’s just a great environment for us to play.”
Barry Trotz knows all about the fans being on top of the opposition. The Islanders head coach was with the Washington Capitals when the two teams met in the first-round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Capitals would win the series in seven games, closing the door on the Coliseum the first time around.
He’s happy to be on the other side of things this time around.
“You have a great tradition there. The fans are on top of you,” he said. “Trust me, you can hear them. They can hit you with the odd beer or two as you’re going off, get in your face, all those things. It’s a quaint building in a sense that it’s not overly big. The new buildings everybody’s so far away. They don’t feel like they’re on top of you. Some of the smaller buildings, like Winnipeg’s building, is designed where they’re on top of you a little bit.
“Trust me, you feel it. You feel the energy from the other team and we get energy off our crowd. It’s a fun place to play.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.