Imagine for a second if the Islanders hadn’t made the playoffs last season. How would your opinion of the roster and the franchise be different? I’m gonna go ahead and guess that it wouldn’t be very high. Mine probably wouldn’t be, either.
What if they hadn’t beaten the Panthers in 2016 on John Tavares’s double overtime goal? Or if David Volek hadn’t driven a stake in the heart of the Penguins in 1993? Or if they hadn’t beaten the Flyers in 1980 or the Penguins or the Rangers in 1975?
How would any of those events not happening affect our perspective on the Islanders today?
This isn’t another What If? Week article, I swear. It’s just that in writing the two articles about the great underdog moments in Islanders history for Underdog Week, a certain connective tissue between all of those events started to become clear. I outlined the list from memory, as I’m sure any one of you could have as well. These games and series are so ingrained in us as Islanders fans that we can not only recite them but remember where we were and who we were with and what we were feeling when they happened. Even if it was something that happened before your time, you’ve surely read enough retrospectives about it or watched enough YouTube videos or heard enough people talking about it that you know the details probably better than you know most of your own family history (raises hand).
They’re all amazing underdog stories in their own right and, even more amazingly, they all happened to one team. Our team. Our frustrating, infuriating, often stumbling, bumbling team is also responsible for some of the most unbelievable underdog moments in NHL history.
With rare exception (such as their two middle Stanley Cup championships), Islanders history is underdog history. This is a franchise that hasn’t been taken seriously for the better part of the last 48 years. And yet, at least once a decade if not more, they pull some insane victory out of nothing and remind everyone just how special they can be.
Even their mere existence is an underdog story. The Islanders were basically founded out of spite to keep the WHA out of Nassau Coliseum. A bunch of big shots decided to hastily put an NHL team in a place few outside of the Northeastern United States had ever heard of in the early ‘70s. People on Long Island liked hockey already, but I’m sure few figured the Islanders would be around for very long anyway. Thanks to an equally long history of unstable ownership, they almost weren’t.
But in Year One, they were already winning games they weren’t expected to. By Year Three, they were winning playoff series they weren’t expected to. In less than a decade, they had won a Stanley Cup no one expected them to.
If only one or two or none of those things had ever happened, the entire foundation of this franchise is completely different. No eleven seconds. no 0-3 comeback, no Tonelli-to-Nystrom, No dynasty, no Ferraro-to-Volek, no “Bedlam in Brooklyn,” no “Game One. To The Island.”
Without these, what is Islanders history? Underdog teams and underdog players and underdog moments are baked into the fabric of the franchise. There are so many to remember that it’s difficult to think about what life would be like without them.
Of course, the problem with being a long shot is that you have to fall behind in the first place. Those times, well, they suck. We’ve all seen enough sad seasons to last ten lifetimes. They can be a drain mentally and emotionally and make us wonder why we even bother to root for this stupid team in the first place.
But then, every few years, the Islanders add to their decades-long list of stunning, out-of-the-blue wins and we remember why. Oh, right. This is just what they do.