The New York Islanders have faced their fair share of tribulations over the years, on and off the ice. Ownership and arena situations aside, which are finally stable for the first time in many fans’ memories, there’s a reason for optimism on Long Island. Thinking back to where the trajectory of the team began to swing upwards, I’m reminded of two specific moments.
The first was a game that took place on Feb. 11, 2011, at the Nassau Coliseum against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dubbed “Fight Night” by many, it quite literally showed the hockey world the Islanders weren’t going to be pushed around anymore and was one of the defining games in franchise history.
The other was the shortened 2012-13 season and ensuing playoff series against the Penguins. While a season eight years ago is easy to write off as inconsequential, part of the seeds of today’s Islanders can be traced back to this season’s playoff appearance.
After making the post-season in four out of five seasons to start the 21st century, the Islanders finished last in their division from 2007-08 to 2011-12. Even with 2009 First Round Pick, John Tavares, growing into a superstar, the Islanders struggled to find an identity and were constantly at the receiving end of the media’s taunts. Much of that began to change during the 2010-11 season, though.
Fight Night at the Coliseum was much more than their 9-3 thrashing of the Penguins. The game came during the dog days of yet another difficult season, one where a TSN analyst called the Islanders “the doormat of the NHL.” And while the team admittedly struggled to this point and even the season after, the disrespect throughout the 2010-11 season was at a boiling point within the Isles locker room, and on Feb. 11, 2011, the steam screamed out from the kettle, alerting the hockey world the Islanders were going to change.
Just nine days after a Penguin victory that included an orbital bone injury to goaltender Rick DiPietro from a fight with Brent Johnson and a concussion to Blake Comeau due to a hit from behind delivered by Maxime Talbot, the two teams met again for a much different game.
“For us, it’s been really frustrating all season long,” Zenon Konopka said. “There’s been a few things out of our control, and a few things in our control. It wasn’t just a direct hit at Pittsburgh, they just kind of fell in the way. It was a lot emotions built up. It goes to demonstrate how close a bunch we have in here.”From “Islanders 9, Penguins 3,” by Dyan LeBourdais on NHL.com 2/12/11
That last line is really important and what really identifies how the Islanders would begin to change over the next few seasons. It’s not just about literally sticking up for one another, though that certainly didn’t hurt; it was about playing for one another and playing as a team. Eventually, this newfound identity helped create the Islanders’ fourth line, which is still intact today and plays an enormous role in how the Islanders’ have found success.
Though it would take the Islanders a few more seasons to get on the right path and nearly all of the personnel have since changed — save for Josh Bailey and Martin — this game provided the team with a rallying point and created a special bond between the players that would eventually turn the franchise around.
Beginning with the 2012-13 season, the Islanders have made the playoffs in five of the last eight seasons. It’s true their success during those playoff runs has varied, but they’ve won more playoff rounds (four) since and including the 2013 playoffs than they have in decades. Even in the series they lost to the Penguins in 2013, there was something different about how they played.
The Penguins were a good team in 2013. Sidney Crosby was in his prime and the best player in the world. However, outside of the first game, where the Islanders were shutout 5-0, they really gave it to the Penguins that series. During and after game two, which the Islanders won to tie up the series heading back to Long Island, there was a noticeable difference in their composure the rest of the series. They believed they could win, and that helped, once again, to alter the DNA of the team for the better.
This series also had a real impact on the current team because, unlike Fight Night in 2011, there are more players still on the team from 2013 who have been through the paces in an Islander sweater. Casey Cizikas, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Thomas Hickey, Bailey, and Martin were undoubtedly shaped by this series and continued to carry that experience with them as the team grew and made the playoffs more and more.
These two moments in the recent past have made an undeniable imprint on this franchise. Even as coaching and roster changes took place over the last decade, the team continued to grow, using these moments as a foundation for their future. And today, when we look at what the Islanders are, it’s clear they wouldn’t be where they are without going through these experiences.
Want more Islanders content? Check out the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast, hosted by The Hockey Writers authors James Nichols and Jon Zella. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts and on Twitter and Instagram @nassaumenhockey.
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.