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Fans say long goodbye to Coliseum

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- It was a bittersweet night in a season that promises quite a few more melancholy moments for Islanders fans, who didn't seem to have their usual over-the-top venom for the Rangers at the start of Tuesday's game, even if this regular-season clash was perhaps the last game ever between them at the old barn, if the playoffs fail to bring them back together.

The Isles were in first place, just ahead of the Rangers. The Isles won this year's head-to-head series 3-2 despite how this game turned out.

So why the smattering of empty seats well into the second period? Was it the usual traffic snarl out on I-495 or the Meadowbrook Parkway? Why the slow way the crowd seemed to warm to the game even though the Isles outplayed the Rangers in the opening period, the first meeting between these two teams since a wild, frantic, 6-5 Rangers win here nearly a month ago that many of the players called one of the best NHL games they'd ever played in?

A dreary, steady rain fell all night, cramping the usual tailgating outside the arena. Was that it?

Or was it because the Islanders' long goodbye from their 43-year-old home is starting to sink in?

"It's sad -- it really breaks my heart that they're leaving here," says 58-year season-ticket holder Michael Niciforo, who was wearing a Bryan Trottier jersey and sitting in the lower bowl of the Coliseum with his 24-year-old son Steven. "I think there is a realization the end is coming -- just a general sense of foreboding. It's been hanging over everything all season. But it's getting stronger now [with just 13 regular-season games to go]. Everyone talks about the last game here, when it's going to be over. And how we don't want it to end."

Niciforo said when Steven was born, he dressed him in an Islanders jersey when he was still in his crib. He smiles and says he told all three of his children as they were growing up that they could be anything they wanted to be -- "but you can't be a Rangers fan." When Steven got older, the two of them watched tapes of the glory days Islanders teams together, and Steven memorized facts about those teams until "he knew them better than me."

A few years ago when the Isles finally made it back to the playoffs for a one-and-done stay, Steven turned to his father with tears in his eyes and said, "Dad, I finally now know what it was like for you here during all those playoff years."

"And that brought tears to my eyes," the elder Niciforo says. "For a lot of people here, following this team has been a way of life."

The Isles are as unique to the Long Island market as the NBA's Kings are to Sacramento, the Thunder are to Oklahoma City or the Packers are to Green Bay. Once the New York Jets abandoned nearby Hofstra University as their practice facility, the Islanders really became the only pro game around. And when they leave after this season for Brooklyn's Barclays Center, there is no reason to believe big-time pro sports will ever be back this way again.

"I'm going to take my seat after the last game here -- I already have the tools," says 19-year Islanders season-ticket holder Lawrence Marasco, a pharmaceutical salesman who grew up in nearby Seaford, New York.

Marasco returns from his current home in Dallas for four months every year to attend about 30 Islanders games a season with his dad, same as they have since Marasco was 5 years old.

Marasco, like so many Isles fans, stuck with the team in all the lean years when they were one of the most lampooned teams in pro sports between their dynastic run in the early 1980s and now. For a long time, players didn't want to play here. One galling roster move or bust season followed another. The NHL very nearly flubbed and sold the team at one point to a flimflam man named John Spano, who ended up in prison. Local politicians dithered and dallied on green-lighting the Lighthouse development project until owner Charles Wang hemorrhaged so much money he finally said enough and sold the team to the owners who are taking it to Brooklyn.

During many of those years, the only respite for Isles fans were those few games a year when the Rangers came to their place or the Islanders went to Madison Square Garden.

The Isles, even more than the Rangers, played those games with a passion and fury, as if they were their playoffs. Isles fans used to love being able to answer the Rangers' fans chants of "Potvin sucks!" with sing-song taunts of "1940" until the Rangers finally broke their drought and won the Stanley Cup in 1994, led by Mark Messier. Following the Isles -- who picked up the nickname The Fish Sticks the years their seafaring man logo looked like a frozen food company's logo -- has often required having the same glass-half-full outlook and wry sense of humor Chicago Cubs fans have had to muster so many years.

Now, even though the crowd in the Coliseum on Tuesday had the usual healthy split of jersey-wearing Rangers fans and Isles fans, Isles like being able to lord over the Rangers the fact that they've so far been the better team this season, if only by a whisker. The Islanders' ability to keeping winning without Kyle Okposo before his 22-game absence caused by a detached retina was almost as good a story as the Rangers' 11-2-3 tear without injured franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers are the team that went to the Cup finals last season. But they give the Isles their props: There is not much separating these two teams.

If they do meet in the playoffs, it should be extraordinary. Sometimes the Isles look better. Sometimes the Rangers do.

But all the success the Islanders are enjoying this season unevenly masks the coming pain.

The fact that the Isles finally have their best team in decades -- a club that, like the Rangers, is among the four or five teams that could win the East and play for the Stanley Cup -- makes their coming departure feel worse.

Now they're leaving? Now?

Now that they finally got this good and have John Tavares, a legitimate MVP candidate, leading the league in points at the same time the Rangers' Rick Nash is pushing Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead in goals?

"It was intentional," Marasco insisted, standing in the concourse before the game. "When you look at the moves the Islanders made, the money they spent last year, they wanted to have a good team going into Brooklyn. They could've done this before. ... They could've spent the money and made the kind of moves they made this last year."

Out on the ice later, the Rangers would go on to win a tightly played game 2-1 when a shot by Nash ricocheted in off Islanders' Ryan Strome's skate. "It was a playoff-type game. ... [But] it sucks to be on the wrong side of it," Tavares said in the Isles' dressing room, a bare-bones row of plywood benches and metal-cage lockers with no-frills hooks and shelves. In Brooklyn, the dressing rooms will have fine paneling. The Isles' new home has a latte bar, trendy food concessions and an on-site barber shop for guys to get a pregame shave and haircut.

Before pulling into the Coliseum on Tuesday, maybe for the last time, Rangers defenseman Marc Staal spoke to reporters about how visiting players enjoy its old-world charm. Staal said, "So many great players have gone through that building, so it's cool to be a part of that. There's a kind of uniqueness going into those old buildings -- the history, the dark lighting, the mustiness, it's a different feel. ... I wouldn't say I always miss it, but it definitely makes for a different atmosphere on the ice."

Tavares says the Coliseum is definitely the loudest building he's ever played in. After Tuesday's game, he seconded how, "Leaving here is certainly going to be bittersweet. It's going to be a different way of life for all of us in here, just like the fans. It's been one way here for over 40 years. And I'm sure there's going to be a breaking-in period once we do go. But I think things will be great in Brooklyn, too."

Right. But it will never be the same.

Robert Drucker, a 33-year-old Isles fan from Coram, says he's dealing with the Isles' move 28 miles west by reminding himself it could be worse: "They could be moving to Vegas. Or Seattle. Or one of the other cities that want a pro team."

Drucker said he'll continue to follow the Isles in Brooklyn. And Niciforo and his son said the same, though they plan to downsize to just a weekend ticket package because it's going to be too much to get home at 12:30 a.m. or so on weeknights.

And Marasco? He's dealing with the fact the Isles are leaving Long Island by insisting, um -- they're not.

"I find it amusing to tell my friends in Brooklyn that they also live on Long Island -- and granted, it's the farthest west point of Long Island, but it's still Long Island," says Marasco, who plans to sell Brooklyn Islanders shirts on eBay starting this week for $20 each, plus shipping.

Then, like so many Isles fans during this long goodbye, Marasco lapses into the refrain that's repeated even more than "Rangers s---!" in this last season at Nassau Coliseum.

"This never should've happened," he says, looking around the noisy concourse, the fans in their Rangers and Islanders jerseys exchanging insults and laughs and shouts as they file in.

"I'll go see them in Brooklyn. But they never should've been allowed to go."