By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
If only the Islanders could finish what they start. The Eastern Conference would look a lot different. They wouldn’t be hanging on by a thread to stay in contention for a playoff spot; they’d be firmly entrenched in the top eight.
But you know all this already.
What you don’t know, or have yet to come to grips with, is a painful truth, but a truth nonetheless.
The Islanders are lame ducks in their own building and they have one hand tied behind their backs every time they step out on the Nassau Coliseum ice.
Now, this column isn’t about blaming fans for not showing up or getting on the ones who do who are always expecting the worst and letting the boos fly the second things go awry. It’s about accepting reality. You have every right to stay home, but if you do your expectations shouldn’t be all that high regardless of what the experts say about the up-and-coming core of this team or what the Isles do positively over short periods of time.
Psychologically, the Islanders play at home like they, too, are expecting the roof to cave in. They are now an incredible 5-11-2 at the Coliseum, by far the worst home record in the NHL. But yet they are 8-4-1 on the road. They are one of only two teams in the entire league playing above .500 on the road yet not currently in a playoff spot.
And regardless of all the complaining that I read, this is no longer about a lack of talent because the Isles have enough to be a playoff team, and the old adage suggests if you can play .500 on the road and take care of business at home you’ll be just fine. While I agree the Islanders still have a lot of work to do to make the roster battled tested for the long haul, this team should be higher up in the conference standings than it is.
There is only one explanation for the Isles’ often horrifying play at home compared to their often inspired play on the road. They feel at ease on the road. They don’t lose their focus on the road. They don’t skate around on egg shells on the road, waiting for the other boot to drop. And if that’s because they don’t feel the love at the Coliseum, well, I’m sure they don’t feel a lot of love on the road either, yet somehow find a way to persevere. The nightly lineup and coaching strategies are largely the same every game, but the players’ execution and focus at the Coliseum compared to on the road is like night and day.
Here is an incredible statistic, but one that speaks volumes about everything. The Islanders, who despite all their issues are just three points out of eighth place in the East, have had the lead or been tied in the third period in 25 of their 31 games this season. Yet, they have lost 12 of those games. Just imagine if they had won five or six more. I wouldn’t be writing this column and you wouldn’t be staring at yet another non-playoff spring.
This current four-game homestand has been a nightmare, or a microcosm of their play at the Coliseum all season. New York has so far been outscored 9-0 in the third period in losses to Ottawa, Montreal and Pittsburgh, has been outscored 35-17 in the third and overtime at home this season and has allowed an NHL-high 47 goals in the final period overall.
I have said repeatedly that the Islanders would use this truncated season to learn how to win and I still believe that they are, but why do they continually fail to play the final 20 minutes in their own rink, yet have outscored their opponents 13-12 in the third period on the road this season?
At the Coliseum, fans who do show up, considering all they have been subjected to since owner Charles Wang took full control of the team 13 years ago, have very little patience and the Islanders, for their part, are not resilient. They get punched in the mouth and then don’t have the mental wherewithal or fortitude to pick themselves up and fight on.
And this isn’t necessarily about all the teams currently ahead of them in the conference being all that much better, because the Isles have beaten nearly every one of them. Only against Boston, really, has New York looked inferior.
I had it out with folks on Twitter in the aftermath of the Isles’ dreadful 5-2 loss to visiting Montreal on Thursday. Their continuous defense or reasoning for the Isles’ terrible play at home was based on talent and coaching. I just don’t buy all of that, mostly because of the Isles’ stellar road record, illustrated by the proven fact that they don’t fall apart late in games. Or if they have, they’ve still more often than not found a way to win. Case in point, last Saturday night in Florida when they blew a three-goal lead in the third but yet took the lead back late and held on for the victory.
If the Islanders blow a three-goal lead in the third period at home, you know what the eventual outcome will be.
No lead is safe. Even with a three-goal advantage if the opponent scores early in the period, you start to sense disaster afoot. The fans, as if on cue, start rolling their eyes. The fans watching at home and on social media sense the inevitable. They have all been socialized into believing if the Isles are not up a ton in the third in their building they will eventually spit the bit.
And the Islanders have done nothing to disprove that theory.
Now, are there ghosts or evil spirits at work here? No, of course not. Is the Islanders’ lack of support at the Coliseum so poor that the team feels uninspired? Well, they do have the lowest average home attendance in the NHL at just over 12,700 per game, but it’s not like the place is empty. The fans still bring the noise when they feel they have a reason.
But what is annoying yet understandable considering the Islanders’ lack of recent playoff seasons and the fact that they’ll soon be heading to Brooklyn is the legions of opposing fans that take over the Coliseum. The Rangers basically have a home game. It used to be a 50-50 split, which was somewhat acceptable considering many factors, but now is clearly Madison Square Garden East. But what I find more disheartening is when teams like the Canadiens, Capitals, Bruins, Flyers and many others invade and commandeer the lower bowl. Again, I’m not blaming fans for not showing up, but you can’t sit here and tell me that doesn’t have any kind of psychological effect on the Isles, especially when they face adversity later in games.
The bottom line is the Islanders need to get out of that building pronto. If they can find a way to do it before the lease expires in 2015 they absolutely must. Now I realize that there are no guarantees that attendance will be all that much better when they initially get to Barclays Center, but I think the Isles realize that with the move will come an opportunity, if the team is competitive, to eventually develop a new fan base.
No one is under any illusions here. I don’t expect the majority of remaining Islanders fans in Nassau and Suffolk counties to make consistent treks to Brooklyn, but I do expect this team to put a full-court press on to acquire new fans, because if there’s one thing the people of Brooklyn do it’s rally behind what is theirs. Just look at the NBA. In just their first season in Brooklyn, the Nets are averaging more than 17,000 fans per game. During their final season in Newark the Nets were last in the league, with 13,905 per game.
The Nets then pumped money into the roster and now you are looking at a playoff team that could do some damage, with all the fan support that goes with it.
The Islanders can follow that blueprint and have the same success, because they already have a superstar in John Tavares, plus several very good players, a bigger core fan base than the Nets ever had and a history to fall back on, regardless if that history is now quite historical.
But the longer the Isles remain a team incapable of spending money as a prisoner to what many would consider one of if not the worst arena leases in professional sports history, they’ll continue to feel like visitors in their own building, simply because they are not mentally tough enough to overcome adversity in a place that is not the least bit forgiving.
If Wang cares one iota about the next few years — and only he knows the answer to that — he’ll do whatever he can to get the Isles out of the parking lot by the beach and on the road to a place that probably will be a little more understanding if, for example, an opponent scores a goal in the third period.
The sooner the Isles leave the old barn in the rearview, the better off they will be.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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