Let me start this piece by being cordial and congratulatory towards Barry Trotz and the New York Islanders on a gritty, gutty playoff run to game six of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.
While the Isles’ style of play lacks any aesthetics whats-so-ever, and at times, resembles a traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway at 5pm on a Friday afternoon. The Isles success wad tangible and the results were undeniable.
Having gotten that small slice of congeniality out of the way, let’s get down to the business at hand.
New York Hockey Roots
Amazingly enough, the rivalry between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders, which in the view of your’s truly is the fiercest in all of hockey. In this near half-century of exchanging unpleasantness and epic regular season tussles and ferocious playoff battles, never have these New York neighbors each been a true Stanley Cup contender at the same time.
When the Islanders entered the NHL prior to the 1972-73 season and were the typical sad-sack, sorry expansion team, the Blueshirts were among the NHL’s top squads. The Rangers came oh so close to capturing Lord Stanley’s silver chalice in the previous spring losing to the Boston Bruins in the Finals.
As the 1970’s progressed and then-coach and general manager Emile “The Cat” Francis” dismantled the aging Rangers, jettisoning one fan favorite after another, his counterpart to the east, Islanders GM Bill Torrey was laying the foundations for what would become one of hockey’s greatest dynasties.
Sadly, the meandering Rangers toiled in relative mediocrity, while the Islanders were inching closer and closer towards the Promised Land of hockey. That culminated in 1980 and the now legendary overtime Stanley Cup winning tally by Bobby Nystrom. From 1981 through 1984, the heavily favored Islanders defeated the inferior Rangers each playoff year on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
From out of the Islanders dynasty shadows, Rangers found glory in 94
As the decade of the 1990’s began, led by the architect, “Big Deal” Neil Smith, the Blueshirts would catapult themselves into the world of the NHL elite. They won three division titles, two President’s Trophies and of course the 1994 Stanley Cup. They did so by bulldozing the underdogs from Uniondale in the first rounds of the 1990 and 1994 playoffs. The latter half of the 90’s would not be kind to either franchise as both would struggle to keep their heads above water and frequently missed the playoffs.
As we entered the new millennium in the post Y2K world, the resurgent Isles would find themselves a playoff team led by Michael Peca and Alexei Yashin. However, the Rangers much to the chagrin of their exasperated and frustrated fan base, continued to be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
Then in 2005, led by the record breaking Jaromir Jagr and a suave goaltender from Sweden, it was the Rangers turn for resurgence. The Henrik Lundqvist era gave legions of Ranger fans a plethora of memories that they’ll all take to their graves. During this time period, the Islanders would mostly remain out of the playoff picture.
Both Rangers and Islanders on the rise
Throughout the almost five decades of the always exciting and at times viscous “Battle of New York” rivalry, these two combatant’s position in the standings is tantamount to siblings riding a see-saw. When one team is up, the other is down.
Could you imagine being at Madison Square Garden or the soon-to-be-open new Isles arena in Elmont, Long Island in late March or early April. Now imagine the atmosphere as the Rangers and Isles battle with first place on the line. The electricity of such an important and crucial contest would be felt all over the New York Metropolitan area.
Yes, the Rangers and Isles have met in the semi-final round on two occasions. In 1979, when goalie John Davidson and the Blueshirts shocked the Isles in six games. Then in 1981, the Isles demolished the upstart Rangers in a four game sweep on their way to wining their second straight championship.
Now, the Rangers are accumulating young, high end talent like a panicked shopper stock-pilling disinfectant. Meanwhile, Barry Trotz and the mercurial Mat Barzal are leading the Isles to greener pastures.
This is all happening with the Stanley Cup windows closing on teams like Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. So it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to see these bitter, heated and hated rivals battling for division and conference supremacy in the years to come. That and the all important local bragging rights that make it such a great rivalry.