UNIONDALE, NY- Center ice still featured the big Islanders emblem and matching NHL logos at Nassau Coliseum Friday night. Kyle Okposo, the team’s leading scorer in 2008-09, was also in uniform and garnered some of the loudest cheers during the pregame skate.
A plethora of empty seats stood as the backdrop, giving the venue the feeling of another Islanders home game. But post-season hockey returned to the building after a two-year absence, though it wasn’t in the form for which the organization hoped.
To open the American Hockey League Calder Cup playoffs, the Islanders allowed its AHL affiliate Bridgeport Sound Tigers to play its first two home games at the Coliseum. The venue appeared too big for the event, with a respectable minor league crowd of 4,927 looking embarrassingly small spread out among the facility’s 16,237 seats.
Yet even in a 3-2 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Game 1 of the East Division Semifinals, Trevor Smith said playing at the Coliseum was a reward for the Sound Tigers who have not been called up to the Islanders.
“It’s an experience to be in the dressing room and be treated like an NHL player,” said Smith, who sported a bloody gash on his nose sitting just feet away from the large Islanders logo in the middle of the carpet. “They have all the [Islanders] trainers, all the equipment guys. It’s a nice atmosphere.”
Smith scored a goal and assisted on another, contributing to each of Bridgeport’s two goals. After scoring 30 goals in 76 games, the Sound Tigers leading goal-scorer in the regular season has already experienced the thrill of scoring a NHL goal in the arena during his seven-game promotion in the middle of the Islanders campaign.
With front office executives, especially general manager Garth Snow, paying attention to Bridgeport’s playoff performance, Smith said coming through in high-pressure situations can make a lasting impression.
“You make your career in the playoffs,” Smith said. “That’s what teams are looking for down the stretch. It’s an important playoff series for all the guys.”
At Harbor Yard, the Sound Tigers averaged 4,528 fans per game. Though that figure was just average compared to rest of the AHL, Bridgeport finished with a league-best 29-7-1-3 record at home.
Jack Capuano, the Sound Tigers head coach, said the experience was a positive. But he added that the location didn’t matter once the puck dropped.
“It’s still the same ice surface; it was a great crowd and a great atmosphere to
play in,” Capuano said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task and hopefully it’s going to be a long series.”
Okposo played 35 games for Bridgeport last season after signing a professional contract to leave the University of Minnesota. The 2006 first-round pick didn’t play a single game for the Sound Tigers this season, as the 21-year-old was leading the Islanders in scoring during his rookie year, tallying 18 goals in 65 games.
The team moved Okposo down in order to get him postseason experience. It also is a move designed to keep him sharp for the World Championships, where he will represent the United States in the tournament that runs April 24-May 10 in Europe. Okposo did not score against the Penguins.
Friday night, Okposo wasn’t the only familiar Islander who donned the white, orange and blue Sound Tigers uniform that looks very similar to the Isles road jerseys. Jon Sim and Jack Hillen were also in the lineup.
Like Okposo, Hillen just concluded his rookie NHL season. He scored one goal and added five assists in 40 games. The 23-year-old defenseman spent nearly half of the season in Bridgeport, logging 33 games for the Sound Tigers. Okposo’s situation is the exception while Hillen’s ledger is more the norm, with many players moving frequently back-and-forth the Long Island Sound.
Hillen said his ample time in the AHL makes the playoff experience valuable even as he spent a sizable portion of the season at a higher level.
“It’s extremely special for me,” Hillen said. “I felt like I was on two teams this year. I played equally on both teams. I was down in Bridgeport just as much and all the guys on both teams are just as important to me, so I want to win this more than anything.”
The last time the Coliseum hosted a professional hockey postseason game was in 2006, when the Islanders dropped Games 3 and 4 to top-seeded Buffalo in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Buffalo won both games in Uniondale and the Islanders lost both of its home playoff games in first-round losses to Tampa Bay and Ottawa in 2004 and 2003, respectively.
Three home victories in the memorable quarterfinal series loss to Toronto in 2002 still marks the last time the Islanders won a home playoff game. Bridgeport will look to be the first professional home hockey team to win a postseason contest at the Coliseum in Game 2 Saturday. Opening faceoff is set for 7 p.m.