In the final days of an arena made holy by a Stanley Cup dynasty more than a generation ago, proclamations from 12,000 grateful worshippers thundered down from the pews Wednesday as validation: “New York Saints! New York Saints!”
The crowd at old and dying Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island, N.Y., used Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy’s words against him, embracing his accusation about how National Hockey League referees were treating the New York Islanders.
Cassidy was right, of course: the Islanders aren’t saints. But they are believers.
Their conviction was evident as they swatted aside the Bruins with a 6-2 win to move into another NHL semifinal. The victory guaranteed their joyous followers at least another couple of games in the Coliseum before the team moves next season about 15 minutes west, nearer to civilization and its new $1.5-billion home at Belmont Park.
There is an unwavering zeal about how the Islanders play: consistently, smartly, quickly and physically, shift after shift after shift.
That they do this with a deep, experienced, playoff-hardened lineup that has been through eight playoff series in three years since Barry Trotz arrived as coach and Lou Lamoriello as general manager – Hall-of-Famers cast off by previous teams that should have known better – make the Islanders a formidable opponent.
Yes, even for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Stanley Cup champions who again will have to go through the Islanders to get to another Final.
New York eliminated Boston in six games, winning the final three after falling behind to the Bruins 2-1 in the East Division Final. The Islanders are capable of winning a Stanley Cup even if few people outside of their flock will pick them to beat the Lightning.
The Bruins had the bigger stars, as the Lightning will, too, but the Islanders had the better team. And by the end, really, it wasn’t close.
“We recognize this as a special moment for this building,” Trotz said late Wednesday. “Guys understood the magnitude of this game, the importance of the game. This is a group... you don't have to say too many things, you just have to give them little reminders here and there. But they are really a solid, veteran group. They understand the moments, and this was a moment for them and our crowd.”
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One of a dozen skaters who has been through all eight playoff rounds with the Islanders since Trotz won a Stanley Cup in Washington in 2018, Brock Nelson scored two of three Islanders goals during a second-period outburst made possible by dreadful Boston puck management.
“One of those nights -- Barry touched on it after the game -- you'll always remember moments like that,” Nelson told reporters. “It just feels good having a full Coliseum there behind us, and playing for them.”
Trotz said: “I talked to them, I said, 'You know... when your career is all done, you're going to remember those special moments -- when you win a series and hopefully when you win a Stanley Cup. There's going to be special moments along the way, and we can make this a special moment. Try to take the next step.' There's going to four teams left playing, and all the other ones, the 27 other teams, they're wishing they had this opportunity that we have.”
The Islanders’ six playoff series victories under Trotz is one more than the franchise had managed over the previous 34 years since the Edmonton Oilers ended in 1985 the Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier-Denis Potvin Islanders dynasty at four-straight Stanley Cups.
“We've got a group of guys that have been together for quite a while [and] we've added some key pieces,” veteran forward Josh Bailey said. “You get in these high-intensity games and guys just keep showing up for one another. It just builds a bond. It's going to be no easy task; I think Tampa has a great team, defending Cup champs. But we know we believe in ourselves and we know we're going to need our best to find a way to take them down.”
The Lightning beat the Islanders in six games in the Edmonton playoff bubble last summer.
Since then, Lamoriello added two more experienced wingers in Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, and Trotz developed defenceman Noah Dobson and put him on the first-unit power play.
It was classic Islanders that, late in the third period on Wednesday -- with the score 4-2 before New York added a couple of empty-netters -- Trotz sent his third and fourth lines out to defend the lead, and on consecutive shifts these players spent their time on the ice running out the clock by keeping the puck protected deep in the Boston zone.
With their season, and possibly an era, on the line, the Bruins managed five shots in the third period.
“I keep coming back to experiences because that's what allows you to have success, to understand the moment,” Trotz explained. “We don't get too far in front of the moment. We weren't even thinking about Boston; we were just thinking about the next shift.”
“We have a good group of guys that have been here a long time,” Nelson said. “They've kind of grown up here, grown together. It's a special group, a special place, the history this place has dating back to the early days, the 80s. I've said a few times... it’s just not the players, but the community have a strong connection to this place.”
Never stronger in the last 35 years, even if the place is changing.