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On Underdogs

On Underdogs
By Lilly Milman • Issue #9 • View online

My dad and I cried on the night that the New York Islanders lost against the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six of the first round of the 2013 NHL playoffs — their first flirtation with the postseason since 2007, and the first NHL season where I knew every player’s position and number and felt like a real fan. We had spent the night cheering in our living room — streamers with torn edges still taped to the ceiling, which I had neglected to take down after my birthday party months ago. This was a ritual formed out of the realization that Islanders games were one of the only events we could enjoy together without fighting. 
A lockout had cut the number of games usually played in a season almost in half that year. The Islanders — as always — were skating by on the skin of their teeth, 12th place in the Eastern Conference. That year, we watched them lose game after game in my living room. We jumped and shouted as we watched them lose a few times in the coliseum, too. 
… 
It was tough to argue that John Tavares wasn’t, consistently, on fire. The Canadian captain, and de-facto face of the team, had been a star since he scored his first-ever NHL goal against the Penguins’ goalie Marc-André Fleury, who he would face again in the 2013 series, in 2009. He finished second in rookie goals scored his first year in the league. Dozens of Tavares jerseys made their way through the halls of my school on game days, and Long Islanders spoke of him in reverent tones typically reserved for the likes of Billy Joel. He created plays, scored goals, gave graceful interviews even after losses, and stood by the team that loved him too much for his own good — even as some argued it held him back. But in late March, the tides began to turn. The whole team started to play differently. 
Investments in wild card players were, against all odds, paying off — a feeling fans weren’t really used to. The probably-too-old-goalie Evgeni Nabokov was contorting his body into straddle splits game in and game out, racking up a save percentage of .91 in the regular season — despite having refused to play for the team, one of the worst in the league, two years prior. Rookie wunderkind (now captain) Anders Lee scored his first NHL goal within minutes of playing his first game. Michael Grabner was the fastest skater in the league. Travis Hamonic visited children who had lost their fathers after every game, in honor of his own late father, and I cried each time I saw a clip — not knowing that I would suffer the same loss in just a couple of years. I swung a white, blue, and orange rally towel over my head like a lasso in my living room three times a week. My dad was steadily employed again, finally, and playing with a 40+ men’s rec hockey league. There was less drinking in the house. My older sibling Alyssa was in their senior year of high school, auditioning for vocal programs at colleges, and every trip to an audition felt like a vacation. We won games against the Rangers. We wore jerseys as we decorated the Christmas tree. 
… 
2013 was a year of transitions — for us and for the Islanders. Potential was finally turning into the messy, kinetic energy we needed to be contenders. We weren’t acting with precision at all — instead relying on the passion and momentum and desperation that can only come from years of feeling like you deserve a lucky break, even if no one is willing to give one to you. We were forcing our own lucky break, and I don’t think anyone expected it to work so well. 
For the first time in years, the Islanders gave my dad a reason to shut his laptop and watch something in the living room with me. We were addicted to the feeling of being underdogs with a shot. For months I felt like I was living in the universe of the movie Miracle (which my Russian family, of course, told me was a garbage movie), on the periphery of something great. The franchise was leaning into the slogan “Believe,” and I genuinely did. I loved the Islanders too much to be critical of them. I saw too much of myself in their journey to acknowledge any chance of their defeat. 
But in many ways, to be an Islanders fan is to accept defeat. To love the New York Islanders is to love history, to believe in the idea of legacy, to grit your teeth through bad luck and tough breaks (Rick Dipietro, enough said). To create your own story and to learn from tough love, and most of all, to allow all of your heroes to be human. 
… 
I stopped watching Islanders games when I moved to Boston for college in 2016 — mostly because I didn’t have cable, but also because, without my dad, it was lonely. I missed the drama of our tiny, insular underdog story. 
It was bittersweet watching them play the way we’d always wanted them to against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the semi-finals this year, without him. Without Tavares or Moulson or Grabner or Hamonic or Okposo — the players who at some point felt more like family to me, given how much we talked about them, than figures floating on TV. With undeniable skill and poise and cleanly executed plays and raw talent from players like Barzal and Eberle and Lee. 
Of course, I was sad to see them lose in the final game against the Lightning last Friday. But there’s an undeniable difference between watching two evenly matched teams duke it out, only to have yours fall a little short in the final hour, and following an unlikely 8th seed David face off against Goliath. 
… 
My dad and I cried on the night that the New York Islanders lost against the Pittsburgh Penguins in game six of their 2013 playoff run — because Sidney Crosby had come back from a broken jaw sustained during an Islanders game in March and had a habit of saving his team in a way Tavares never quite could. Because for months, when we said “believe” we weren’t just talking about the Islanders, but it was so much easier to say that we were. Because when the end-of-game buzzer coincided with a 4-3 scoreboard, everybody in the Old Barn stood up and chanted “Let’s go Islanders!” And no one sat down or stopped chanting as the players circled the ice, wiping their faces and picking up rally towels thrown down from the stands, for 10 full minutes, almost as if we’d won. In my head, we did. And we didn’t turn our TV off either, because I wanted to see just how long this feeling, this incredible cognitive dissonance and pride and joy in having at least tried, could last. And to my surprise it lingered for long after the screen finally went black. 
As always, thank you for reading.
For when you are reuniting with family after a long time, something my mom taught me how to make. 
Cabbage-mushroom-potato Кулебяка 
For the dough:
  • 3 cups flour
  • 2½ tsp. dry active yeast
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup milk (can be a non-dairy variety)
  • ½ cup water
  • 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp. white sugar
  • 1 tsp. salt
 For the filling:
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 bag shredded cabbage
  • 1 package mushrooms
  • 2 potatoes, chopped
  • 1 tsp. paprika (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp. turmeric (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp. sugar (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp. red pepper (or to taste)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
For the кулебяка:
  • ½ of prepared dough
  • Cabbage-potato-mushroom filling
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • Flaky salt
To make the dough: Mix milk and water, and heat until lukewarm. Add 1 tsp. sugar and 1 tbsp. flour, mix, and leave the dough in a warm place for 20 minutes (like a window ledge on a sunny day). Dough should begin bubbling and rising. Add 2.5 cups flour, egg, oil, and salt, then mix together well. Grease hands with oil, flip dough out onto a floured table, and knead the dough until it is still soft but does not stick to the table. Form a ball out of the dough, place in a bowl, and cover with a slightly damp kitchen towel. Put it in a warm place for another 40 minutes. To make the filling: Fry potatoes and mushrooms in 2 tbsp. olive oil according to this recipe. In a separate pan, heat up 2 tbsp. olive oil, add onion, and cook until it softens. Add shredded cabbage and stir. Cook for a few minutes, then stir in remaining ingredients until combined. Add in potato-mushroom mixture. Fry until cabbage has just a little bite to it. To make the кулебяка: Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper, and dust with flour. Cut dough in half, store one half in a plastic bag in the freezer for future use. Roll out the remaining dough on top of the parchment paper, on the sheet, into a large oval. Spoon in a few tablespoons of the filling. Cut off about half an inch of the dough on each side of the oval, to create a rectangle. Bring all four sides together over the filling, and pinch until closed with your fingers. Use the dough that you cut off to create designs, and stick them on top of the кулебяка. Spoon beaten egg lightly over the finished product. Sprinkle flaky salt on top. Bake at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes, checking frequently to see if it is golden brown. Cool for a few minutes before cutting into slices. Serve hot.
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Lilly Milman

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