Isles fall short of magical ending at Nassau Coliseum

ByKatie Strang ESPN logo
Sunday, April 12, 2015

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The crowd cleared out quickly Saturday night, with some of the last stragglers trudging up the cement stairs to the main concourse around 10:34 p.m., looking subdued and a bit somber.

There was a false sense of finality to it all, with this being the last regular-season game ever to be played at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the playoffs approaching in just a matter of days.

This aging, antiquated building still has some hockey left, with the New York Islanders set to face the Washington Capitals in the first round next week, but it was not the sentimental send-off many would have wished for.

In an alternate ending, the Islanders would've notched the winner in the shootout and delivered a dramatic victory while securing home-ice advantage in the process. Isles fans would've gone home giddy, buzzing with anticipation of Game 1 back in the old barn.

But then again, in an alternate ending, the Islanders would never be leaving Long Island.

Just like the lengthy, arduous battle waged to keep the team in Nassau County -- one that proved to be futile -- Saturday's 5-4 loss was a protracted affair that ultimately ended in disappointment.

"We had our opportunities," team captain John Tavares said. "We let it slip."

There was a peak in excitement in the third period, when the Islanders struck twice in short order. Just after the frenzied fans were belting out the patented "Yes, Yes, Yes!" chant following Eric Boulton's second goal of the season, Tavares tallied to give the team a 3-1 lead.

But a plucky Columbus Blue Jackets team, out of the playoffs for some time yet still fighting in their season finale, rallied back to tie the game -- twice. In an ending that would anger any true hockey purist, Columbus' Cam Atkinson scored the shootout winner in the fourth round and dashed the Islanders' home-ice hopes.

"You've got to win four games to win a series, so it doesn't matter if you're at home or on the road," said Islanders' winger Kyle Okposo, who tallied his 18th goal of the season in the second period. "If we're going to go deep, we've got to win on the road."

Okposo downplayed the challenge of winning on the road, but he did not hesitate to recognize what the home crowd has meant to the team in its final year at the Coliseum. With the clock winding down before the team ultimately packs its bags for Brooklyn's Barclays Center next fall, the loyal fan base has been superlative in supporting the team's last lap.

"It was a hell of a year from our standpoint, but the fans supporting us the whole way, and [it] culminated tonight," Okposo said. "It was a loud barn, and it's going to be amped up even more when we play here in Game 3. We're excited, and we're happy to have the fans behind us."

Saturday night was no different from what the team had expected, Tavares said.

"It was an incredible atmosphere -- has been all year," Tavares said. "They were humming tonight."

Tavares knows it is the Islanders' duty now to try to give the place as much hockey as it can handle in the coming weeks. The team knows it too. For as much as the fans have supported this club since the arena opened in 1972, they deserve to be given the proper farewell.

That has been a point of emphasis all season.

"We talked about it in the summer time and in training camp, behind closed doors with our group about what this season means," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said before the game.

There is still time for the Islanders to make this a magical send-off, but Saturday's loss was not the springboard the team might have wanted.

Less than an hour after the game ended, the din had deadened. The building was almost empty as the Zamboni made a final twirl on the ice.

Instead of throngs of drunken revelers loitering after a heart-pounding victory, there were only a few errant patches of fans lingering. There were a few diehards who seemed really hesitant to walk out the door.

Jamie Diaz was one of them.

Diaz has spent many hours both within the bowels of the arena and outside its doors. The North Babylon resident can usually be found outside the Coliseum's Gate 5 entrance on game days, waiting to share a few words with the players and workers as they make their way inside the rink. For Saturday's game, he brought his 18-year-old daughter, Megan, a huge Casey Cizikas fan. They started tailgating early in the afternoon and seemed exhausted and wistful as the last of the crowd was filtering out of the concourse.

Before the game, Diaz said he'd probably cry when the game was over, though he'd save it for once he got in his car for the ride home. Megan said she'd try to keep his spirits up.

It was a hard night for him and an emotional one.

"Bittersweet," he said.

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