The National Hockey League season started back in January with just a few teams hosting a limited number of fans because of COVID-19 restrictions. As the season went on, the number of teams allowing fans began to grow and so did the allowed capacities at arenas around the league. For the Islanders, fans were allowed to return in March with a ten percent capacity and that meant crowds of just 1,400 at Nassau Coliseum for the remainder of the regular season.
But things are starting to get back to normal and in New York State that means increased capacities for sports venues including “The Barn”. When the Islanders face the Penguins in game three of their opening round playoff series on Thursday night, there will be a little more than 7,000 fans at Nassau Coliseum.
“I’m glad to have the fans back,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz. “It really is a delight to be back behind the bench and you can’t hear yourself think at times because the crowd is great. That’s what we’re looking forward to when we get back to the island. Our fans will hopefully give us that we need to get over the top.”
After playing 23 games in the bubble last season (one exhibition and 22 playoff games) with no fans, the Islanders played their first 21 games this season in empty arenas before they beat the Devils 2-1 at Prudential Center in front of 1,800 fans. When you’re accustomed to playing in front of capacity crowds, whether it’s 13,917 at Nassau Coliseum or crowds of 16,000 or 17,000 at other arenas, it was certainly an adjustment for players to play in front of nobody and only hear in-arena music and sound effects along with piped-in crowd noise.
But now, with fans returning and the capacities expanding, it’s like a little slice of normality as the world continues to navigate through the pandemic.
“We play this game for not only chasing our dreams but also the fans and having them back in the building is really important,” said Islanders forward Matt Martin. “Whether it’s a home game or an away game, the fans really are what make playing this sport special and makes it a lot more fun for us.”
Islanders/Penguins First Round Schedule:
Game 1: Sunday May 16th…Islanders 4 Penguins 3 (OT) (Isles lead 1-0)
Game 2: Tuesday May 18th…Penguins 2 Islanders 1 (series tied 1-1)
Game 3: Thursday May 20th…Penguins at Islanders…7pm…MSG+
Game 4: Saturday May 22nd…Penguins at Islanders…3pm…NBC
Game 5: Monday May 24th…Islanders at Penguins…TBD
*Game 6: Wednesday May 26th…Penguins at Islanders…TBD
*Game 7: Friday May 28th…Islanders at Penguins…TBD
For game one on Sunday, the Penguins welcomed a crowd of 4,672 fans which is 25% of capacity at PPG Paints Arena. After a capacity increase went into effect in Pennsylvania on Monday, there were 9,344 fans on hand which is 50% of capacity. For games three and four at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday and Saturday, the Islanders are expected to have approximately 7,200 fans on hand with half of the arena at 100% capacity to vaccinated fans and the other half of the building open to unvaccinated fans with social distancing rules still in place.
For the Islanders, the crowds in Pittsburgh served as the appetizer. Now, the Isles are ready for the main course.
“It just gets me excited to get to the coli,” said Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield after game two. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s nice playing in front of fans again. It will be fun and will be loud in there.”
“Those are going to be good games to play in,” said Islanders forward Casey Cizikas. “To have the fans back in the (Coliseum) is definitely going to be exciting and something we’re looking forward to.”
What we are all looking forward to at some point is a return to full capacity and the Islanders are hoping that is the case by this fall when they move into their new home UBS Arena at Belmont Park. As the guidance from New York State continues to change and the restrictions continue to be relaxed and eliminated, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to reaching whatever the “new normal” will be.
In the meantime, it’s starting to resemble normality for the Islanders with bigger crowds back in the buildings.
“It is feeling back to normal,” said Trotz. “I’ve got people yelling at me and the team and each other and you can’t hear on the bench. It’s a good feeling to be back to that because it brings juice to the game. It brings emotion. We’re in the business of emotion. That’s what sports is and there’s some great emotion on both sides…good, bad and indifferent because it is an emotionally charged game.”
The 7,200 fans on hand Thursday night will represent the biggest crowd that the Islanders have played in front of at Nassau Coliseum since a sellout crowd of 13,917 saw the final regular season home game last March before the pandemic started. If you were at any of the Islanders regular season home games, you know how weird it was to look around and see just 1,400 people in the arena and to see all of those empty seats, with some of them covered by tarps.
And now for game three, a little more than half of the building will be filled and that represents a huge step forward for the Islanders and Long Island showing just how much progress has been made in stopping the spread of COVID-19. If you’re lucky enough to be in the building Thursday and Friday, scream twice as loud so 7,200 members of Islanders Country sound like 13,917.