Islanders make memories in Barclays Center playoff debut

Thomas Hickey scored in overtime to give the New York Islanders the Game 3 win over the Florida Panthers 4-3.

BROOKLYN – If you talk to enough New York Islanders fans, they’ll all tell you that Barclays Center will never really feel like home. That was before Game 3 though.

One game probably isn’t enough to alter a prevailing sentiment among an entire fanbase, but in the building’s Stanley Cup playoff debut on Sunday night – a thriller in which the Islanders mounted a furious comeback to win 4-3 in overtime and take a 2-1 series lead over the Florida Panthers – the atmosphere at Barclays Center was every bit as lively, raucous and boisterous as what you’ll find in any other building in the National Hockey League.

And the playoff memories that were made on Sunday night were potent. They have to have been. This was genuinely a great game.

The fans were loud before puck drop. Their jeers were piercing when the crowd insisted to the on-ice officials that they were ‘a**-holes’ after a questionable roughing call was assessed against fan favourite Matt Martin. And the noise level was loud enough to be comparable to a hurricane or a jet-liner taking off during a Roman candle fight of a second period, when the momentum swung wildly from Florida to New York and back again.

Despite the late 8 p.m. ET start time, despite the fact that Monday is a workday and despite the lengthy-post-game commute faced by many of the Babylon or Ronkonkoma-bound Long Islanders, the stands remained full throughout overtime. The energy in the building was palpable well past 11 p.m.. Over 15,000 Islanders fans communally mainlined pure adrenaline; which is what Stanley Cup playoff overtime is all about really.

“The fans were intense,” rasped Islanders coach Jack Capuano of the Barclay’s Center crowd in Game 3. He admitted the decibel level had caused him to lose his voice a bit through the course of the game.

“In a playoff series like this you’re going to need your fans to be the sixth man and that’s exactly what they were tonight. It was loud.”

Though the game was a nail-biting scorcher, it could’ve turned out differently. The contest was well on its way to being a blowout when, early in the second period, Aaron Ekblad rifled a shot past Thomas Griess to give the Panthers an apparent three-goal lead.

For one brief moment, the atmosphere at Barclays become vacant.

In a crucial moment, arguably the play of the series so far, Islanders video coach Matt Bertani radioed into the bench. He thought Jonathan Huberdeau – who carried the puck into New York’s zone – was close enough to being offside to warrant a review.

“At times you can see from the ice what you might think is offsides or goalie interference, but our video coach did a great job calling it into us tonight…” Capuano said of his decision to challenge the play.

“Down by two is a lot different than down by three.”

It was a major swing, one that was compounded further when the Islanders cashed in a power-play goal shortly thereafter.

Though Huberdeau was offside, he was offside by such a razor thin margin – literally millimetres – that the human eye never could’ve detected it.

“It changed (the momentum),” Huberdeau said of the play. “It’s offside, so it’s not going to count. Of course it’s tough because it would have been 3-0 instead of (2-0).”

You can debate whether the disallowed goal really changed the momentum or not, but there’s no doubting that it fundamentally altered the mood in the building.

“The turning point was calling that goal back to make it 2-0,” said Islanders forward Shane Prince, who scored his first career Stanley Cup playoff goal during that insane second period. “And then the fans propelled us to a comeback.”

“I think it was amazing,” added Ryan Pulock, who scored shortly after the disallowed goal, unleashing pure euphoria at Barclay’s. “I was able to watch games in (Nassau Coliseum) last year and that was special, but I think today it was pretty darn close to the (Coliseum). They were loud, they were involved from start to finish.

“They definitely helped us get some of the momentum back.”

An insane second period was followed up by a tentative third. Playing their third game in four nights, both teams were tired and checked tightly. The breathtaking pace and consistent offensive pressure that had characterized the series to that point vanished in the closing 20 minutes and in overtime.

It didn’t matter to the Islanders fans, though. They cheered loudly for every productive touch. When Casey Cizikas hit multiple Panthers defencemen on an excellent fore-checking shift, the crowd chanted his name: “Casey! Casey! Casey!”

And in overtime, Thomas Hickey walked down from the point. He received a pass from Brock Nelson in the slot and rifled it on net. Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo – exhausted from the heavy workload, as he admitted readily in his postgame scrum – got a piece of it, but he didn’t get enough.

“I can’t tell you how many times I did that in the basement,” Hickey said of growing up dreaming of scoring big goals in overtime. “You do it over and over again, just shoot the puck. That’s special and hopefully not the last one too.”

It was a huge goal in a new setting for a franchise that hasn’t had much to celebrate in a generation. The Islanders franchise, after all, hasn’t won so much as a playoff round since 1993.

Before the game, the off-centre Barclays Center jumbotron showed an interview with two Islanders fans in their mid-20s. They were asked by the in-arena host to describe their favourite Islanders playoff moments. One fan mentioned watching the team win Game 3 of their first-round series against the Washington Capitals last year. The other mentioned Wade Dubielewicz clinching a post-season berth with a shootout victory. Those are slim pickings when it comes to memorable playoffs moments.

In the Islanders’ first Stanley Cup playoff game a Barclays, Hickey gave Islanders fans a serious playoff memory to savor. Now the Islanders just have to make it count.

“If that goal wants to stand up as a big one,” Hickey said after the game, “then we’ve got more work to do.

“No one remembers a goal in a series that you lost.”

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