For many years, the most excitement surrounding the New York Islanders came at the end of the season.
In the 1980’s, that meant Stanley Cup Championships.
However, for the modern-day Islanders, the end-of-the-season excitement has been about adding yet another high draft pick to the mix of young talent already on the roster.
If you’re not going to win, you should at least be entertaining to watch if you expect fans to show up and spend their hard-earned money to watch games inside of an antiquated arena.
Quite frankly, up until their performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins this past Friday night, it was hard to get overly excited about going to watch the Islanders play live.
You wouldn’t think that a storied franchise who once won four Stanley Cups in a row would need to put on a performance that is best described as bonus footage from the 1977 classic movie Slap Shot to excite the fan base.
But it is exactly what the Islanders needed, despite the cries from Penguins’ Owner Mario Lemieux that the game is not supposed to be played that way.
In the retribution game for the damage that the Penguins did to Rick DiPietro and Blake Comeau the last time that the two teams met, the Islanders extracted their “pound of flesh” and then some.
Called up earlier in the day from the minors, C Michael Haley got the action started about half-way through the first period, as he fought Penguins RW Craig Adams. Shortly thereafter, Islanders’ enforcer Trevor Gillies went toe-to-toe with Pengins’ enforcer Eric Godard.
Lost in the heat of the battle was the fact that the Islanders, the same team that was shut out by the Penguins in their previous meeting, took a commanding 4-0 lead into the locker room after the first period.
Shortly after the Islanders increased their lead to 6-0 early in the second period, the hockey stopped and the brawling began, much to the delight of the nearly 13,000 Islander fans in attendance.
The penalties assessed at the 5:21 mark of the second period read like a pay-per-view boxing extravaganza: Josh Bailey vs. Pascal Dupuis, Travis Hamonic vs. Mike Rupp and Matt Martin vs. Maxime Talbot.
Martin also got into it with Deryk Engelland, although the two never came to blows.
By the time that the horn sounded to end the second period, the Islanders had built an insurmountable 8-2 lead. However, at that point, the only score that mattered was the one being settled by the Islanders in spectacular fashion and it continued into the third period.
At the 4:47 mark of the third period, the Islanders and Penguins officially brought the game out of the NHL and into Slap Shot the movie. The only thing missing was the Hanson brothers beating people up in the stands of the Nassau Coliseum.
This melee made the second period brawl look tame.
By the time all of the penalties were assessed, there were hardly any players left to play the game. The Penguins ended with only six skaters on their bench; the Islanders had nine. The two teams combined for a total of 65 penalties in the game, totaling 346 minutes.
The Islanders won the game 9-3, which is astonishing in its own right, since they hadn’t scored more than five goals since beating the hated New York Rangers 6-4 on October 11, 2010.
But even if they had lost 9-3 to the Penguins, the fans at the Coliseum still would have had something to cheer about.
Even in the worst of times, the Islanders still seem to rise up and play their best when fueled by bitter rivalries. It appears as though their hatred for the Penguins going forward will rival, if not exceed, their hatred for the Rangers.
Will the game against the Penguins cure all that ails the Islanders? Probably not.
The Islanders currently own the third-worst record in the NHL.
Their owner, Charles Wang, is waging a battle of his own for the right to build a new arena and entertainment complex in Nassau County. If he loses the battle, the Islanders may very well end up playing someplace other than Long Island.
They haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 and haven’t even made the playoffs since 2007.
If the Islanders do make an improbable run at the playoffs this season, the catalyst will most certainly be the battle that they fought together on February 11, 2011 against the Penguins at the Nassau Coliseum.
Even if they do end up with another high draft pick, at least the Islanders have shown that they have some fight in them after all.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, there is no doubt that the Nassau Coliseum will be at full capacity when the Penguins come to town on Friday, April 8, 2011.
The NHL may have publicly looked down upon what transpired between the Islanders and Penguins, but privately they have to be thrilled to grab the headlines for a change. It will come as no surprise to any hockey fan if the rematch between the two teams in April is shown on national television.
The Islanders are still eons away from their dynasty days, but if their recent play is any indication of their future, they may finally be headed in the right direction after many years of languishing in the NHL’s basement.