Denis Potvin, we can only presume, still sucks. But that’s about the only thing that has remained constant in the rivalry between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders over the past couple of decades.
Until tonight, that is. When the Islanders visit the Rangers for the second time this season, it will represent the first time in, well, forever that the two franchises have been relevant and contending teams. The Rangers are only the hottest team in the NHL right now, coming off their first-ever California sweep and having won 13 of their past 14 games. The Islanders, by contrast, have been consistently strong this season and sit on top of the Metropolitan Division standings – albeit with the Rangers being five points behind and having three games in hand.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault declared tonight’s game will be a “New York classic,” a comment that might contain just a little hyperbole, but you get his drift. The Islanders, who defeated the Rangers 6-3 just three games into the season, will be eager to prove to their crosstown rivals they are indeed for real. The Rangers will want this one too, if for no other reason than they need the two points if they hope to make up ground on the Islanders for the division title.
And how good is that? It’s great for the NHL, actually. When large-market teams and rivals are doing well and creating interest, that’s a boon for the league. In that respect, the NHL is actually having a pretty good year league-wide, with the only real marquee teams that are outside of the playoffs at the moment being the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers.
And tonight’s game comes at a particularly fortuitous time since for the NHL, since the New York sports landscape is pretty much barren at the moment. The baseball season, which was a downer from a New York perspective, is a distant memory. The football teams went a combined 10-22 this season and the two basketball teams have combined to lose 21 games in a row. The Knicks, the Rangers co-tenants at Madison Square Garden, are 5-35 and couldn’t have picked a better time to leave the continent for a game, leaving the limelight all to the Rangers and Islanders.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have seen their local television ratings go up by 27 percent, which has put them virtually neck-and-neck with the Knicks, whose ratings are down 24 percent. The Islanders local ratings are up 26 percent this season, so people are apparently starting to take notice.
And what makes all of this even more tantalizing? Well, if the playoffs were to begin today with the current seedings intact, the Islanders would face the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. The two New York teams haven’t met in a playoff series since 1994, when the Rangers swept the Islanders and outscored them 22-3 en route to winning their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. That Cup, coincidentally, managed to silence Islander fans who would chant “1940! 1940!” every time the Rangers came to visit.
(After one game against the Toronto Maple Leafs I covered when I worked for The Toronto Star, I was in the bar of the hotel next to Nassau Coliseum and saw an Islanders fan wearing a Rangers sweated around his waste, which meant he put his behind on the Rangers logo every time he sat down. That’s how much these two teams hate each other.)
The only downer in all of this is the Islanders will be leaving their home for Brooklyn next season. After years of putting their fans through all sorts of misery and displaying spectacular incompetence, they finally seem to have it right. Their GM has made hockey trades that have actually worked and their young talent has begun to germinate into something that could represent a true contender. They finally look like a legitimate NHL outfit, one that has begun to make decisions actually on what’s best for the roster and not for the bottom line. And after this season, this team with so much promise will move to its new digs and take all of that promise and potential with them. Just when the Islanders are giving the Nassau Coliseum faithful reason to hope again, they’re yanking it all away.
But until then, the Islanders have their visit to MSG tonight, then will host the Rangers three more times themselves before the end of the season. With the Islanders moving even closer to the Rangers, there’s a good chance the rivalry will intensify in the coming years. And that will be the case even more if both teams continue on their upward trajectories.