Islanders Finally See the End of the Road
The N.H.L. season has been underway for more than a month, and the Islanders have had more time in a Chicago restaurant than they did on their home ice. They spent more minutes in the penalty box in Winnipeg than they have in the locker room of their own arena.
They have skated in 11 cities, four time zones and two countries, flown in every direction on the compass and billeted in almost a dozen hotels across the continent. They have done all that, and they still haven’t played at home.
And it is not over.
After 11 consecutive road games, the Islanders will add two more in Florida, on Monday and Tuesday. It is the second-longest stretch of consecutive road games in N.H.L. history and the longest to start a season — a unique challenge for players, coaches, equipment managers, traveling secretaries and forlorn fans.
“It’s different,” Casey Cizikas, the team’s veteran center, said. “Last year our longest flight was just over an hour. This year we are doing a lot more traveling and playing different teams, so there’s a lot of unfamiliarity there.”
It has been so long since the Islanders last played a home game that it’s hard to remember where home is. For a few more days, it is kind of nowhere.
The unusual scheduling was necessary because the Islanders are moving into a new arena in Elmont, N.Y., and extra time was needed to finish it. Months ago, when it became clear that construction would continue past October, the N.H.L.’s traditional opening month, the Islanders asked the league to make accommodations.
So the equipment bags were loaded and the Islanders were sent on a tour of North America, where they would play almost exclusively in arenas they had not seen in over a year, in front of mostly hostile fans.
“It’s obviously not ideal,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “You want to play in front of your own fans, too.”
That will finally happen on Saturday, against the Calgary Flames, at the Islanders’ new home, UBS Arena, nearly six weeks after the first puck of the season was dropped.
By then, the Islanders will have played a third of their road schedule for the season, against 12 teams they did not see at all in the 2021 season, which was shortened and restructured because of the coronavirus pandemic.
They will enter Monday night’s action with a 5-6 record, and the remaining games in this 13-game road stretch are against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, two of the best teams in the league.
There have been no public complaints, and the team has even seen the value in time spent together on the road to open a long season. The players also know that the schedule, which has long stretches of days off built in, could have been worse.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “It takes a toll on you mentally and physically to travel and play. But we’ve done a pretty good job so far. We have a few more left. It just means we’re going to have more games at home down the stretch, later in the year, which is a positive.”
The only team to play more consecutive games on the road was the 2009-10 Vancouver Canucks, who were essentially booted out of town for 14 games because of the Winter Olympics from Feb. 12 to 28, 2010, in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the Canucks, it was actually two trips separated by a vacation.
They went on the road for eight games. Then the N.H.L. had a couple weeks off. Andrew Raycroft, a Canucks goalie then, said he and about half the team went to Hawaii and the other half to Mexico.
When they returned, they met in Ohio for a four-day camp before playing six more road games, beginning against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were 8-6 on the trip and later lost to Chicago, the eventual Stanley Cup champion, in the playoffs.
“The first part was fun, but the second half of it really started to drag,” Raycroft, now an analyst for Boston Bruins broadcasts, said. “But we got better through the whole process. That’s when you really become a team.”
Raycroft recalled team-bonding events on the trips, including a boisterous outing after a win in Toronto, a fishing trip and a golf outing in Florida.
The Islanders had enough space in their schedule this year to divide the long stretch into separate trips and spend a good deal of time in their own homes and practice numerous times at their facility in East Meadow, N.Y.
The first and longest leg started in Raleigh, N.C., Miami and Chicago. They enjoyed a big team dinner in downtown Chicago and won their first game of the season there. They then zipped over to Columbus, Ohio, and on to Phoenix and Las Vegas, finishing with two more wins.
After that there was only one game scheduled over the next 10 days (an overtime loss to the Predators in Nashville), which became a trip of its own.
Four days after that game, the team played in Montreal, where Barry Trotz, the Isles’ coach, met a friend for dinner for the first time in months.
“That was like my third time in a restaurant since the pandemic started,” Trotz said. “I mean, strange. But it actually felt a little bit normal.”
The last time the Islanders had been in Canada was March 2020.
After beating the Canadiens, the Islanders flew to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where they beat the Jets on Nov. 6 and started to look like the team that took the Lightning to a seventh game in the conference finals last season. But they have not won since then.
On Thursday, they had their closest brush with a home game: They played the Devils in Newark, N.J. Roughly half the fans at the Prudential Center were Islanders fans, desperate to get a glimpse of their team in person. Still, the Islanders treated it like a road game, spending the night before the game in a New Jersey hotel. They lost, 4-0 to fall below .500.
Raycroft said the prolonged road sequence would help the Islanders. Although the team is mostly composed of players who have been together for a few years, including a deep playoff run last season and a stint in the so-called bubble at the end of the 2020 season, the long spell in away jerseys provided opportunities for team bonding.
Equally important, after the Islanders return from Florida, they will play 31 of their next 46 games at home. Raycroft said getting road games out of the way early would give the Islanders a significant advantage over their divisional rivals.
“When I first saw that schedule I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a really long time before playing at home,’” Raycroft said. “It’s got to feel quite odd. But it’s going to help them in the long run.”
There is one more bump ahead: At the very end, the Islanders play nine of their final 14 games on the road. At least they will know how to do it.