It was almost surreal, standing on the concourse and watching a human river of orange and blue stream through the gleaming Barclays Center GEICO Atrium—or across the blue carpet at the Calvin Klein VIP Entry around the corner on the Atlantic Avenue side—knowing that Friday night was the first New York Islanders regular season home game not to be played in Uniondale, NY.
Which isn't to say the experience was irrevocably bad. Mostly just that it was different. (Not much of a #hottake, but hey: I only overreact to large sample-sizes.)
For the first time since their inaugural 1972-73 season, the Islanders are playing their home games in a building that's not the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The team is officially based in Brooklyn this year—I read it on Wikipedia and on those subway station ads and even in that unfortunate New York Times article that strangely depicted @IslesFacebook as voice-of-the-fan-base / one super-bitter person.
Still, some things remained the same as they were in Nassau County. Islanders jerseys vastly outnumbered Blackhawks sweaters in the crowd, and there were still chants of LET'S-GO-ISLAN-DERS as fans poured into the Isles' new home for the season opener against Chicago. People were excited for meaningful hockey; aspirations of another Isles playoff berth and hopefully a deep postseason run were in their minds.
But there were also differences, as expected: more food options on the concourse than there are Nassau County residents (numbers only slightly exaggerated), well-documented obstructed views from some seats, and living mannequins (fancy term for "people on platforms just standing really still") modeling Isles team gear in a pop-up team store behind the MSG+ TV set at the west end of the rink.
The breaking-in process will take time
Brooklyn is not Nassau, which is a geographically sound statement and also a cause for excitement or concern, depending on whom you ask.
Dream-like qualities aside—did I really just walk to my seat without having to squeeze/nudge/steamroll my way through a seething knot of people?—the opener at Barclays was, if nothing else, a chance for everyone to get used to the idea of Islanders home games taking place within the New York City limits.
And that opportunity wasn't reserved solely for the fans that had taken the train from Suffolk, or driven in from Nassau, or hopped on the subway from the city after work. The Islanders players also had to adapt to their new surroundings, since they're the ones making their livings at Barclays now.
"It's going to take some time to get used to bounces and things like that," Johnny Boychuk said after the game. "We'd better get used to it quickly, though, because we're here now."
Many of the Isles players commented on the subpar quality of the ice, which noticeably deteriorated after the first period. Passes that normally would be crisp were instead caught up in snow or sent bouncing over sticks.
Barclays Center will obviously see much more non-hockey activity than the Coliseum, so it'll be interesting to see how the playing surface holds up over the course of the season. Still, as Frans Nielsen noted, the conditions affected both teams equally: "The ice is the same for both teams. You can't complain about it.
"We went toe-to-toe against a good hockey team out there," Nielsen continued. "It's never fun losing, but at least we're on the board with a point."
"The more things change, the more they stay the same" -John Tavares, basically
The game location made no difference to the Islanders captain from a scoring standpoint.
Tavares made himself right at home in the second period, scoring (fittingly) the first Islanders goal at Barclays and sending the crowd into a frenzied YES-YES-YES chant afterwards. The goal was typical Tavares: a strong move from the goal line to the slot and a second-effort shot past a sprawling goalie.
For a moment—and again on the second Isles goal scored by Marek Zidlicky—the focus wasn't on the condition of the ice, or issues with the expanded LIRR service to Brooklyn, or the fact that large swaths of seats were empty; all that mattered to the fans was that their team was tied with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that yes: Barclays has its imperfections, given that it was not purpose-built for NHL hockey. And it doesn't have that well-worn, broken-in charm of the Coliseum (crumbling though it was). But those issues took a back seat Friday night when the home team was giving Chicago all it could handle in what was a hard-fought game decided on an overtime penalty call and an unlucky bounce.
The arena itself won't be the reason the Islanders win or lose; that's on the coaches and players. What matters most is how they adapt to the weirdness of Barclays Center in making it feel like home.