I fell in love with Bridgestone Arena while covering the Penguins' 2016-17 Stanley Cup run. The fans outside the building, the organic noise inside of it. The viral nature of cheering alongside fans tossing catfish and singing like a World Cup game.
Nashville was an incredible experience right until the Penguins won their fifth Cup on that ice. Three games to one and they cheered until the end.
The last week on Long Island was even more surreal.
Sure, the Coliseum they call "Nassau" has an AHL capacity, restrooms you'll miss an entire period to see the inside of and a ceiling low enough to touch, but it's the best environment I've experienced. I said as much in my View from Ice Levelfollowing Game 1.
With that distant city praise out of the way, I was anxious to experience a Pittsburgh crowd again for Game 3. Not just a crowd cheering for the city I grew up in, but a crowd that had to wait to see the team live in the first round, something that hasn't been the case for a few years.
Surely the place would be buzzing, the free towels would be twirling and the Iron City would be flowing to free up the vocal cords.
Instead, after the Islanders tied the game, the crowd was never a factor. Cheers were only audible after the three bangs from Iceburgh's drum triggered "Let's go Pens" in response, or after he signaled the same cheer with three toots on the air horn.
Instead, the yellow freebies in the form of shirts and towels littered the stands and kept the I.C. Lights warm when the fans found their way home -- see the first image in the gallery above for a visual of that.
One of the only organic cheers came from a fan late in the game, but it wasn't necessarily hockey themed: "Tiger (Woods) won The Masters! Let's go!" And, yeah, it got the section going for a few seconds and died off just as the Iceburgh-inspired ones did.
A lot of the narrative I've seen in response to my entries in our game's Live File regarding the crowd seems to credit the Penguins' recent success and Islanders' lack of it as the differentiating factor separating the crowd experiences.
I don't necessarily buy into that argument though. The crowd is collected, organized, rowdy and sings personalized songs for its players in the way soccer supporters do for each of theirs.
There are a couple images I want to use to compare what it felt like to go from the Uniondale, N.Y. crowd to the Pittsburgh one. This first one was coming back from a media time out at Nassau Coliseum in Game 2:
[caption id="attachment_806871" align="aligncenter" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
Everyone on their feet with a giant flag waving in the upper-most section of the arena.
And this was kicking off the third period of Game 3. The Penguins, down two games and a goal in the series, posted a graphic to the effect of "get loud and wave those towels" on the big screen. This was the response:
[caption id="attachment_806870" align="aligncenter" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
Well, there was one fan in that image waving his towel from his seat, at least. And I did manage to find a few more fans twirling their towels with a smile ... here's one:
[caption id="attachment_806869" align="aligncenter" width="640"] MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
This piece isn't to blame the fans ... not even close. The fault of the series and the deficit the Penguins face rests in the players and staff they play under. Down a goal, down two goals on home ice and facing a nearly insurmountable series hole, there was no desperation on the ice.
At the same time, I can't help but wonder where the Pittsburgh fans are or where they were during this game. They weren't there, or they weren't cheering if they were.
I've covered three Penguins playoff journeys for DKPittsburghSports.com when this one comes to an end. One of those resulted in a Stanley Cup. But in all three seasons, including the winning one, the Penguins crowd was never better than any of the road atmospheres.
That, along with the on ice product, should be in desperation mode come Tuesday, but is it too late?