There’s a buzz around Long Island.
The Islanders, winners of eight of their last 10 (8-1-1), have surged up the Eastern Conference standings into the seventh place with seven games remaining.
But teams are knocking at the door – most notably, the rival New York Rangers, who have earned points in five of their last six (4-1-1) to stay in eighth place with 44 points, just two behind the Islanders.
All of this, along with the growing playoff-like atmosphere around every Islanders game, sets the stage for the highly-anticipated final regular season matchup between the teams, Saturday night at the Coliseum. The importance of Saturday’s tilt is not lost on Islanders forward Matt Moulson, but he says the players have to remain focused on the job at hand.
“We've had the experience over the last couple of weeks of playing a lot of intense important games,” Moulson said. “I don't think the crowd is going to treat it like any other game though. But we can’t psych ourselves out. We have to make sure we come out doing what we've been doing, and we’re prepared to work another tough battle. That’s nothing we're not used to.”
With the tight playoff race, the general feeling in the Islanders room is that the game in front of them is the most important game of the season. The compacted season has been one long crescendo from January until this point, with the past month’s games feeling more like postseason.
But Bob Nystrom, on the other hand, smiles big and laughs a bit when hearing comments like Moulson’s. Nystrom, an Islander from 1972-86, was a part of an Islanders franchise trying to make a name for itself by winning big games. “Mr. Islander” was an instrumental member of the squads that ended the Rangers Stanley Cup hopes four years in a row from 1981-84.
“I would have to say the players and coaches are downplaying it quite a bit,” Nystrom said. “It’s a huge game regardless of the opponent. But the fact that they're playing the Rangers takes it up about 30 notches. When you factor in how close they are, it adds more meaning. I'm sure it's going to be electric and the players are going to be pumped and everyone in the building will be going.”
Nystrom, who attends games at the Coliseum regularly and was at the Islanders Official Viewing Party at T.G.I. Friday’s in Westbury for Thursday night’s 2-1 win over Boston, has seen a palpable energy among the Islanders faithful in recent weeks.
“I was at a game the other night and the building was rocking,” Nystrom said. “There’s energy in the concourse in between periods. When a team starts playing like that, everyone gets involved to try to help the team get into the playoffs. It's magical. When you're a player you can sense that. Everywhere you go, the people are talking to you about that. They're urging you on, saying, 'You've got to make the playoffs this year.'”
Nystrom’s experiences were echoed on Tuesday night when a near-sellout crowd of Islanders fans chanted, “We want playoffs” as the clock ticked down on their 4-1 win over the Flyers.
Fellow Islanders alum Butch Goring, now a television analyst for Islanders games, is among the majority who are glad to see the Islanders back on track. Goring says that the noise inside the building reminds him of the days when Nassau Coliseum earned the nickname “Fort Neverlose”.
“I’m talking on TV about home ice advantage all the time. The fan reaction over the last couple of games has really given that home ice advantage back to the Islanders, and maybe it’s not coincidental that the Islanders have been able to win hockey games as of late.”
Moulson says the players feel it too. The Islanders have won four straight at home by a combined 16-5 margin.
“When the Coliseum gets full and the crowd is into it, it's one of the best places to play,” Moulson said. “You feed off that energy. That's what home-ice advantage is all about. You get that confidence. Maybe sometimes your legs aren’t under you but the crowd gets you going. It's been great having that kind of support.”
Goring understands the effect the crowd can have on a game, especially in Uniondale. But he was never able to appreciate it during his playing career the same way he can from the press box, looking down on the action.
“As a player, obviously there are times when you hear the fans, particularly on the bench or during a big moment in the game,” Goring said. “But your focus is primarily on the game at hand. When I hear the fans start to get involved more in the game, I can enjoy it more now. We reminisce a little bit during the game about the good old days.”
Of all of Nystrom’s memories of big games, several against the cross-town rivals stick out. One of those was the 1984 Patrick Division Semi-Finals, in which Ken Morrow’s overtime goal lifted the Islanders to a 3-2 win in the deciding contest of the Best-of-five series.
“That was quite a series,” Nystrom said. “Don Maloney scored for the Rangers to tie it up real late in the game and force overtime. That goal that Kenny scored was huge. It was a big moment for all of us. We've had many great playoff battles against the Rangers. I think that buzz has picked up again, and it’s back.”
Talking about the rivalry’s cornerstone moments, Nystrom also alluded to a night when the Islanders got to spoil the Rangers season in enemy territory. In 1974-75, the franchise’s third season of existence, the Islanders earned their first winning record during the regular season, but it wasn’t until 11 seconds into overtime in the decisive Game 3 of the preliminary round at Madison Square Garden that the Islanders put themselves on the map for good.
“I would have to say the JP Parise goal way back when in '75 was our crowning moment because we were the ugly duckling and then we finally beat them out of the playoffs,” Nystrom said. “I think that made us feel real good about ourselves and I think it made our fans feel real good about us.”
And in many ways, the Islanders will be playing for that same pride again Saturday. While it’s not an elimination game, it certainly will have a playoff feel. Regular season games of this magnitude don’t come around often.
It’s good to have that buzz back in the old barn.
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