Back at Nassau, Islanders brace for Penguins
When the New York Islanders lost in the seventh game of the first round of the 2015 playoffs, that looked like a wrap for Nassau Coliseum, the team's longtime home arena that unnerved opponents as much as it inspired the home team.
But 1,444 days later, the Coliseum is going to host an unlikely playoff series.
The Islanders will host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday to start a best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round matchup.
The Islanders (48-27-7) authored the most surprising story of the NHL season and earned home ice for the first time in 31 years -- ending the longest home drought among the four major North America pro sports leagues -- by finishing second in the Metropolitan Division under the first-year management tandem of head coach Barry Trotz and Hall of Fame general manager Lou Lamoriello.
New York missed the playoffs by 17 points last season and then saw captain John Tavares leave for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent.
The Penguins (44-26-12) extended their NHL-best streak of playoff appearances to 13 by finishing third in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh has won three Stanley Cups during its run of postseason appearances.
The Islanders, who moved to Barclays Center in Brooklyn prior to the 2015-16 season, began splitting their home games between Barclays and Nassau Coliseum this season as they wait for a new hockey-only arena to be constructed on the border between Nassau and Queens counties. If New York advances past the Penguins, all future postseason series will be played in Brooklyn.
The remodeled Coliseum hasn't lost any of the cozy charm that provided the Islanders such a home-ice advantage for four decades. After ranking among the bottom three in NHL attendance in each of its first three seasons at Barclays, New York sold out 14 of its 21 home dates at the Coliseum this season and played to more than 97 percent capacity at the 13,917-seat venue, which is the smallest in the NHL.
Trotz, who steered the Capitals to the Stanley Cup last season, said he expects the building to roar Wednesday like it did four years ago, when his team eliminated the Islanders in Game 7.
"You know what sticks out in my mind more than anything?" Trotz said Monday morning. "A half-hour before warm-ups in Game 6, and the building underneath was shaking because people were cheering already. That tells you everything about it."
The Islanders and Penguins last met in the playoffs in 2013, when the Penguins earned a six-game victory a quarterfinal series.
Each team has three players remaining from those squads -- the Penguins' star triumvirate of Sidney Crosby (35 goals, 100 points), Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, and the Islanders' trio of Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, although Martin spent the previous two seasons with the Maple Leafs.
No one is more familiar with the Penguins than Trotz, whose Capitals faced Pittsburgh in the playoffs in each of the past three years. Washington finally earned a series win last spring on its way to the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
"We talked about all three series, they all had their own twists," Trotz said. "They beat us doing certain things; we beat them doing certain things. It's just playing a team (19) times in playoffs in three straight years. It's just a lot of hockey and a lot of knowledge on each side."
The Penguins will be facing a typically stingy Trotz-coached team. The Islanders, who allowed the most goals in the NHL last year (293), gave up the fewest (196) this season. New York is the first team to go from worst to first in goals allowed since the Ottawa Senators -- no, not those Senators -- pulled it off in a three-team NHL in 1919.
"We have to make sure that we have an element of patience in our game," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We have to take what they give us. We're going to have to compete every bit as hard and we're going to have to make sure that we have a discipline to our game that we play in some structure."
The Islanders and Penguins each had goal differentials of plus-32. New York finished 21st in the NHL with 228 goals scored while Pittsburgh was sixth in goals scored (273) and 14th in goals allowed (241).
The teams split four regular-season games in a series that ended Dec. 10.
--Field Level Media
Updated April 9, 2019