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A letter to Islanders fans: Pantorno

The Islanders continue to prove people wrong this season after disposing of the Penguins in the playoffs. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Islanders continue to prove people wrong this season after disposing of the Penguins in the playoffs. (Photo: Getty Images)
Fresh off a sweep of the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, Metro New York sports editor Joe Pantorno has a message for Islanders fans.
Wait a moment, you're not supposed to be here.
 
You shouldn't be sweeping the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins with their face-of-the-league superstar in Sidney Crosby.
 
How can you dominate one of the NHL's darling franchises like that? In that dumpy arena called Nassau Coliseum?
 
You play in a minor-league venue with bad ice. They're practically better than you in every way. 
 
That's not how any of this is supposed to work.
 
You're the laughing stock of the NHL, remember? You have been for the past 30 years.
 
After all, you're rooting for a franchise that has treated the early 1980's as holy years of the most pious order because, well, there hasn't been anything else to really root for.
 
You've sat there and watched legends like Al Arbour, Bill Torrey, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Bobby Nystrom, Clark Gillies, and Billy Smith make way for... nobodies. 
 
Kirk Muller didn't want to play for you.
 
The Islanders were the epitome of irrelevance. A horrific rebranding that introduced the dreaded Fisherman logo was abhorred by the masses as the organization was desperate to move in a different direction after a stale decade followed the dynastic run of four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983. 
 
Wendel Clark didn't want to play for you.
 
Mike Millbury destroyed the franchise, trading away the likes of Zdeno Chara, Roberto Luongo, Bryan McCabe, Zigmund Palffy, Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Berard.
 
Ryan Smyth didn't want to play for you.
 
A con man in John Spano almost bought the team in 1996 before he was caught and pled guilty to bank and wire fraud charges. 
 
Thomas Vanek didn't want to play for you. 
 
You missed the playoffs 19 times in 30 years. You made finishes near the bottom of the Eastern Conference a regular sight. 
 
Nassau County didn't want you. 
 
Your Islanders became nomads after repeated attempts by the former late owner, Charles Wang, who did everything in his power to keep the team in New York, in their original home at the Coliseum. 
 
He succeeded, but the Lighthouse Project failed as corrupt politicians refused to give the green light for a much-needed facelift of the sagging Coliseum and the surrounding area, forcing the organization out to Brooklyn. 
 
Brooklyn didn't want you. 
 
The New York City marriage was a disaster. Attendance suffered, mass transit for the heart of the fan base on Long Island has been a nightmare, and the arena wanted you out just two years after signing a 25-year lease. 
 
It prompted a split of home games between the Barclays Center and the newly-renovated Coliseum, which received upgrades only after your team left.
 
Who plays their home games in two-different arenas? How many times did you hear that this year?
 
John Tavares didn't want to stay with you. 
 
...
 
Your captain, who swore his allegiance to the Islanders up and down from Brooklyn to Hempstead Turnpike over the years, shunned you to go to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
 
Yes, you have every right to be upset at the way things went down, even if you can't blame the guy for wanting to go home. 
 
So, once again, you had to sit through the incessant jokes that followed Tavares' departure and the ensuing fallout from smart-mouthed hockey analysts like myself along with far more prominent names at Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and The Sporting News who believed the Islanders didn't have a puncher's chance in flirting with a .500 record, let alone the playoffs. 
 
They didn't get better when the response to Tavares' departure was to go out and sign veteran bottom-six forwards Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula, and Tom Kuhnhackl. 
 
Also in a desperate search for a No. 1 goalie, the Islanders lost out on Philipp Grubauer before turning to Robin Lehner, a netminder who had struggled under the starting load that came with a bad Buffalo Sabres team.
 
Not exactly moves that incited much hope for the organization that looked as though it was licking its wounds after a disastrous summer.
 
Deadspin even published an article prior to the season titled: "A 2018–19 NHL Season Preview Of Every Team, From Best To Islanders". You can thank Lauren Theisen for that bulletin-board material, where she claimed that your team was "f***ed." 
 
...
 
The oddest things can happen though when a sliver of competence is placed at the top of the organization. 
 
And it shows that at the end of the day, you or me, or every single hockey writer who has ever covered the game, can't predict this sport. 
 
Don't let them tell you any different. This isn't the NBA where parity goes to die.
 
Instead of dolts like Millbury and Snow trying to build the organization, owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin brought in Hall-of-Fame executive Lou Lamoriello as team president and general manager. 
 
Lamoriello proceeded to snag Barry Trotz, fresh off a Stanley Cup championship with the Washington Capitals last season, as the team's head coach. 
 
Suddenly, your team had a bench boss with experience closer to the great Arbour rather than the questionable coaches of the past ranging from Rick Bowness to Steve Stirling, to Jack Capuano, to Doug Weight. 
 
Those odd things I referenced to a few paragraphs ago? Well, they started happening almost immediately once the offseason wound down and skates were actually laced up. 
 
Trotz was going to transform the largely unchanged roster from a loose, offensive-minded team to a structured, defensive side that would be difficult to break down. 
 
No way was that going to work.
 
Your defense was the worst in hockey last season, allowing 296 goals. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk were coming off the worst seasons of their careers while Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, and Adam Pelech were all plenty inexperienced.
 
Put in the unproven goalie platoon of Lehner and Thomas Greiss and it was understandable why so many people expected your team to struggle. 
 
Instead, your team thrived.
 
Lehner and Greiss became the best goaltending duo in hockey while the defense — which further flourished upon the introduction of Devon Toews following Thomas Hickey's injury — cut down their goals against by 100 in 2018-19. 
 
Your team was winning games at an alarming clip that made the NHL world sit up and take notice. Heck, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 20, the Islanders were the hottest team in the NHL, winning 15 of 18 games.
 
It wasn't pretty hockey, and offensive stats were going to dip in this new system — an idea that could have negatively effected second-year phenom Mathew Barzal or former 40-goal scorer and new captain Anders Lee, or soon-to-be free agents Brock Nelson or Jordan Eberle. 
 
Instead, everyone bought in as it can be argued that the Islanders have the most organized team in hockey, finishing with 103 points on the season, their best output since 1984-85. 
 
...
 
They might be the most underrated 103-point team in NHL history.
 
Despite being the higher seed and having home-ice advantage at the Nassau Coliseum, a multitude of writers picked your team to be bounced out of the first round of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins. 
 
Heading into the first-round series, ESPN even ranked the Islanders' defense dead-last out of the 16 playoff teams remaining. Much like Lauren Theisen at Deadspin, you can thank Dimitri Filipovic for that extra bit of motivation. 
 
I wonder what he's thinking now? 
 
Your Islanders completely shut down the Penguins in the first round, outscoring them 14-6 while Lehner posted a sterling save percentage of .956. 
 
The afterthoughts, the nobodies, the has-beens, the never-will-be's; they defeated the big-bad Penguins. 
 
They held Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Phil Kessel to just seven combined points over four games. 
 
They found the offense when it mattered most. Eberle scored a goal in every game. Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey added three apiece. Key contributions came from those grizzled veteran signings in Filppula, Komarov, and Kuhnhackl, who everyone once scoffed at after Tavares' departure. 
 
Let them keep laughing, you'll just stay in your lane as your Islanders continue to reach new heights. They're moving on to the second round of the playoffs for just the third time since 1993. 
 
They even lit up the Empire State Building orange and blue for you following Tuesday night's monumental win.
 
Maybe the rest of the hockey world will start taking the Islanders for real. Or maybe they'll just keep thinking that this is all one exorbitant ruse. 
 
After all, you're not supposed to be here. 
 
Enjoy, the ride, folks. Try not to laugh too hard at all the naysayers this year.

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