A New York Islanders Stanley Cup championship banner hangs in my garage, which we refer to as the “barage,” the place where I can anxiously pace back and forth when watching a big game and belt out a cheer without sending the dog into a barking craze.
The banner lists each year of the Islanders’ dynasty run of the early 1980s.
It was a Christmas gift from my wife in 2019, the latest addition of sports memorabilia to help fill out the “barage.” A few days after the banner went up, some friends stopped by for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
One friend, who’s not a particularly big sports fan, noticed the irony of the championship years, which ended in 1983.
We’re the same age, so she knew I was born in 1984.
“So, the Islanders stopped winning right after you were born?” she asked, not knowing she had struck a nerve.
Indeed, my entrance into the world coincided exactly with the end of the Islanders as a powerhouse of the National Hockey League.
It’s been an uphill climb ever since.
While the Islanders remained a consistent playoff team for those years after the dynasty, by the time I became of age to really understand the game and follow intently, the glory years were a distant memory.
For so many years, the Islanders were the one team I rooted for that never delivered a memorable playoff run. I’m not even saying a championship. That remains elusive to all my teams. But I at least saw the Knicks play in two Finals. I’ve seen the Mets play in two World Series. I’ve seen the Jets twice on the cusp on reaching a Super Bowl.
But the Islanders?
Well, an exciting first round series that ended in a loss was about as far as it went.
The tide has turned now, and as the Islanders prepare to play a Game 2 on Memorial Day in Boston, I can’t help but appreciate just where the franchise currently stands and where it’s going.
Gone are the days of hoping the team can squeak into the playoffs. Gone are the days of feeling thrilled the team gave it a nice effort in Round 1. This is now a team, still ever the underdog, that is here to compete against the league’s elite.
A Penguins or Blackhawks fan may look at the Islanders’ recent seasons and laugh at the idea of fans cherishing these playoff runs.
Where are your Cups?
No, the Islanders haven’t reached that pinnacle yet, but to have won five series (counting last year’s qualifier against Florida) in the past three seasons is a level of success unmatched by anything I’ve witnessed as a fan. (I can’t say I have any distinct memories of the 1993 run to the Conference Finals).
And no other team I root for has experienced any playoff success in the last three years.
The Islanders are all I got.
The playoff drought for the Islanders finally broke in 2016 when John Tavares scored two late goals in Game 6 against the Panthers. (I’ll never let Tavares’ decision to spurn the Islanders for Toronto ruin that memory of finally seeing the team win a series). And now it feels like a team that expects to be here and has legitimate thoughts of competing for a Cup.
Which brings us back to a pivotal Game 2 against a Bruins team that entered this semifinals series as heavy favorites.
At one point during Saturday night’s loss, I was thinking to myself how I felt an irrational confidence with Ilya Sorokin in net after his masterful work against the Penguins. The Bruins were pouring shots onto goal, yet I felt like Sorokin could stop anything.
But a great goalie can only do so much, and the Bruins surging to a 5-2 victory with three third period goals reinforced just how challenging this series would be. The early success against the Bruins this season not withstanding, a date against Boston in recent years always brought a sense of dread.
And that dread came surging back as David Pastrnak completed his hat trick to put the finishing touches on Game 1 in front of more than 17,000 fans at TD Garden. The Islanders are the pesky team that never goes away and scraps its way to wins in games where the opponent appears to have dominated in the boxscore. For two periods, it felt like it could be another one of those games: Score one goal in the third period, escape with a victory.
The Islanders will undoubtedly have to play better in Game 2 to send the series back to a rabid Nassau Coliseum all even. The odds are never good for a team that falls behind 0-2 in a best of seven.
The Bruins have championship pedigree and played a Game 7 of Stanley Cup Finals as recently as 2019. Last year’s Bruins lost in the semifinals to a Tampa Bay team that steamrolled its way to the Cup, taking down the Islanders along the way. They’re a team that expects to win a championship. And in many ways, it’s a team the Islanders are striving to become.
Who could have imagined that just a few years ago these Islanders were coming off consecutive playoff-less seasons and saw the team’s top player ditch Long Island for his hometown in Canada. However Game 2 turns out, the Islanders fans will bring the energy at the Coliseum for Games 3 and 4, cheering under all those banners of past glory.
As for me, I’ll be cheering in the “barage,” knowing the Islanders are once again a team worthy of a grand stage in playoff hockey.