Astoria, N.Y. – Because a truly great sports rivalry deserves a moniker that actualizes the feel of its games, the “Battle of New York” is perhaps the most accurate title that the NHL has to offer. Games between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders always feel like battles. The players skate a little harder, the body checks are a little more forceful, and the snow showers given to the opposing goalie are always a little more satisfying.
But for Isles fans, the past 20 years of Rangers rivalry games have felt more like those “battles” between you (the Isles) and your older brother (the Rangers) from when you were kids: “MOMMMMM! Henrik stole the remote and won’t give it back!”
You might earn the occasional victory, but mostly the Rangers would end up sitting on top of you, laughing and forcing you to hit yourself in the face with your own hand: “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”
And on it would go.
Sibling rivalry metaphors aside, this isn’t to say that the Isles haven’t played exciting, hard-nosed hockey against the Broadway Blueshirts. Although we haven’t come out on top in those games as much as we would’ve liked to – which in a perfect world, would be EVERY game – our team is slowly turning the tide against that team from the city.
This team is, quite literally, growing up in front of us.
And this weekend, the Isles have a chance to announce to the league that they’re done playing the role of little brother in this rivalry.
Back in the days before expansion, before “helmets,” or “concussions,” or “safety” were real things, the NHL had only a fraction of the teams that it does today. (Side note: this kind of feels like a fairy tale, but whatever. Bear with me.) And if you ask a Rangers fan, he’ll be quick to tell you HIS team was established in 1926, and HIS team is one of the “Original Six” NHL clubs, and that the teams today don’t have an appreciation for the history of the league and blah blah blah blah…
If he knows you’re an Isles fan, he might even take a dig at you by saying that the Islanders aren’t a “real” NHL team. (Maybe that’s where our perceived inferiority complex comes from, but that’s not my point.)
While it’s true that the Islanders didn’t arrive on the NHL scene until the 1972-73 season – as a means of preventing the World Hockey Association from putting a team in Nassau County, believe it or not – they didn’t waste any time reaching the sport’s pinnacle.
If you’re still talking to that Rangers fan at this point – which you probably aren’t – you can casually remind him that the Isles absolutely dominated his team during the late 1970s and the early 1980s. (To be fair, they dominated just about every team in those days.) Bring up the fact that when the Rangers and Islanders met every year in the playoffs from 1981-84, the Islanders won every single series.
Oh, and – disclaimer: blatant homerism here – maybe mention the Isles’ four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980-83 and the 19 consecutive playoff series victories from 1980-84.
Short story long: the Islanders owned the Rangers during that time, and all was right with the world.
Then came the 1990s and 2000s, in which the Rangers perennially took the Islanders out behind the woodshed. The Blueshirts knocked us out of the postseason in 1990 and again in 1994 en route to their first Stanley Cup since 1940.
That trend has carried over into the 2010s – is that even a thing? Did I just make “the 2010s” up? – as the Rangers have clearly enjoyed the upper hand in games against the Islanders. Like I said before, that trend might soon be coming to an end.
A quick check of the current NHL Eastern Conference standings reveals that the Islanders (44 points) are sitting above the Rangers (42 points). Furthermore, the Isles also have 17 ROW – regulation plus overtime wins – which is more than the Rangers’ 16.
But enough about completely-true-Islanders-facts-that-are-sure-to-drive-your-Rangers-fan-friends-crazy; let’s focus specifically on the state of the rivalry today.
As with all rivalries (Yankees vs. Red Sox, Duke vs. UNC, Ravens vs. Steelers), there have been poor performances on each side, but the intensity of each game – regardless of current position in the standings – is apparent.
Though the Isles have been on the losing end of games against the Rangers recently, the games still mean something. These games are played for pride; if they result in a move up in playoff seeding, that’s a bonus.
As far as the arenas for the Rangers and Islanders, there’s a clear disparity between the recently renovated MSG and the crumbling Coliseum.
The Islanders have lacked any semblance of home-ice advantage in recent years, owing to a weak on-ice product that kept fans away from the Coliseum. Rangers fans have descended upon Uniondale in droves for NYR-NYI games, derisively calling our barn “Madison Square Garden – East” or “The Mausoleum” while we sat there and took their abuse.
(I still have nightmares involving “WE – want – FISH – sticks!” chants.)
I’ll be honest: it was tough to fight back at times. Sure, we love our team and hate to see the blue and orange jerseys outnumbered at home. But without results on the ice, it’s been an uphill struggle for the fan base to regain the confidence in this team that was present in the 1970s and 1980s.
But, it’s always darkest before the dawn.
The Coliseum was sold-out for the past two home games; Facebook is full of variations on the “LET’S – GO – ISLANDERS” chant; there have even been accusations of…Isles bandwagon fans (or “sleeper cells,” as I’ve seen on Twitter). In advance of Saturday’s game against the Rangers, these are all great signs for our team.
An Isles sunrise in Uniondale is a beautiful thing.
With the Islanders scheduled to arrive in Brooklyn for the 2015-16 NHL season – or possibly sooner – they’ll be physically infringing on Rangers territory, which should create an even more intense atmosphere for future rivalry games.
The so-called Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets in MLB is cause enough for the city to embrace its split allegiance; with the addition of an Isles/Rangers intra-city series, that feeling will carry over into the winter months.
From what I can tell, the buzz is mostly around the Islanders – as opposed to the Rangers – as they look to move up in the standings this season and potentially bring in big-name talent during free agency. For once, the excitement is on our side in the rivalry.
Sure, the Rangers will always have the edge when it comes to long-standing tradition and the built-in prestige of playing their home games in Manhattan; but the Islanders will have the edge when it comes to salary cap space and homegrown talent over the next several seasons, at least.
The on-ice product will definitely improve for the Isles, making their games with the Rangers all the more exciting going forward.
(Besides, we still have more Cups than them.)
We’re slowly catching up to our “Big Brothers” in the skills department, in the NHL standings, and in terms of marketing clout. In case you haven’t noticed, the Islanders are slowly becoming a player in the New York sports media again.
A win on Saturday might turn a few more heads our way.
Seriously though, “Islanders bandwagon fans?” Did you ever think you’d hear that term in your lifetime? Seems like our boys are starting to generate some interest out in Uniondale. Let’s hope they can consolidate that renewed interest from the fan base with a big home win on Saturday. If that happens, we’ll have to buy a real bandwagon – the current clown car we’re driving (complete with too many people inside) just isn’t cutting it.
@eyesonisles (Rich Diaz)
@tazman19 (Andy Graziano)
@moosiestmoose42 (Scotty Bonner)
@MichaelWillhoft (Who’s got two thumbs and this Twitter handle? THIS GUY.)