On Friday, Jan. 9, I took in the Devils home game versus the Islanders at the Prudential Center in Newark. The struggling Devils entered the contest looking to make a statement after an abysmal performance one night earlier in Boston, where the Devils fell 3-0, after being outshot 43-14.
The Devils a familiar rival, the New York Islanders, who have stunned the hockey world by climbing atop the NHL standings. Last season was a disaster for the Islanders who finished 34-37-11 in the regular season, traded fan favorite Matt Moulson to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek, only to see Vanek reject a reported $50-million dollar extension with the club, and once again leaving fans with the entry draft as the only source for excitement.
Needless to say, fans, pundits and players alike had little faith in the Islanders’ bid to finish strong on the island before moving to Brooklyn next season.
Flash forward to 2015 when the Islanders are proving critics wrong, surprising opponents with a poised defense and stability in goal, areas that had plagued the franchise over the past decade and change and exciting a fan base.
For me, the rise of the Islanders came that Friday evening Devils home game when I arrived in my seat only to see (and hear) a sea of blue and orange. It wasn’t the New York Rangers. It wasn’t the Philadelphia Flyers. It was jersey-by-jersey both of the present day Islanders like current captain and leading goal-scorer, John Tavares. There were also names like Bobby Nystrom and Bryan Trottier, a reminder of the roots that once were for a team that was far from the punchline of the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup four consecutive times from 1980 to 1983.
Meetings between the Devils and Islanders traditionally offer a more harmonious environment than the division rivals across the river, the Rangers, or down the turnpike, the Flyers. But on this particular night there was little harmony. It was a loud, filled with chants and sing-songs between the Devils faithful trying to protect home advantage and Islander fans who traveled well, almost as if they had some vengeance after years of mediocrity, often seeing their home arena, the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., be taken over by Devils and Rangers fans alike.
In the end, the Islanders skated off to a 3-2 win in overtime, after captain John Tavares stole the puck in the corner and fired a shot past Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid.
They didn’t stop there though. On Tuesday, Jan. 13, they took on intra-state rival New York Rangers at the Garden, chasing star-goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who yielded three goals on 32 shots, defeating the Rangers 3-0, ending a seven-game win streak for the Rangers and propelling the team atop the Eastern Conference with 59 points. Only Nashville and Anaheim have more.
For fans on Long Island, it’s the best imaginable ending to the Nassau Coliseum’s final year as home arena for the club before it moves to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center next season. The building has housed the team since it began in the NHL in 1972, a place that saw three of its four cup-winning games. Fans are hoping this season is more than a fluke, and perhaps one more raising of the cup is in-store before departing for Brooklyn.
It won’t be easy with the likes of Chicago, Los Angeles and others out west, not to mention Eastern Conference foes in Tampa and Pittsburgh, all of whom are favorites for cup contention in June. But, as the team prepares for life in Brooklyn, it’s becoming apparent that the team is on the rise, complete with a revitalized team and fan base. It may not be long before this team, the once-laughing stock of the league, returns to what it remember best, raising banners.
Neal McHale is a senior public relations student from Brick, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @nealmchale.