Staple: Islanders-Rangers rivalry needs a boost

Brandon Dubinsky of the New York Rangers moves Brandon Dubinsky of the New York Rangers moves in to check James Wisniewski of the New York Islanders. (Oct. 11, 2010) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football. ...

Hard to believe a little less than two months ago, the Islanders looked scrappy and feisty and difficult to put away. They rallied to beat the Rangers, 6-4, in the second game of the season, in the midst of a 4-1-2 start.

The Rangers still have some of the same issues they had back in that second game, but they've forged something of an identity heading into the home-and-home with the Islanders that starts on Thursday.

What the Isles have forged since that comeback win . . . Well, it's not pretty.

They did snap their 14-game winless streak, but they have a different coach behind the bench. They have John Tavares this time - he was out on Oct. 11 with a concussion - but they won't have Josh Bailey, who was sent to Bridgeport as a sort of team-wide sacrifice to remind these Islanders that no one's job is assured.

The only thing that should be relatively the same is this number: 11,748. That was the attendance on Oct. 11, a day game on Columbus Day, a game against the Islanders' most hated rival. Not even the usual influx of Rangers fans to Nassau Coliseum could push the announced total even within shouting distance of a sellout; the home games since then, especially since Jack Capuano took over for Scott Gordon, have had fewer fans.

John Tortorella meant no insult to the Islanders or their fans when he noted that the Coliseum definitely feels different for an Islanders-Rangers game. "When we came up here with Tampa, the place was empty," he said.

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Marty Biron, who may get the start on Thursday, said it's always a bigger deal to play your old team. "As for rivalries . . . There's a lot of them here," he said. "Flyers, Devils, Islanders - sometimes it means more when you have guys who played for the other team. It definitely means more to the fans."

That may not even be true right now for Islanders fans. Biron is getting to experience the better side of the rivalry right now - as he talked, he sat in the well-appointed locker room of the MSG Training Center, with a team that's willing to spend money to improve itself, a team that could easily reach the playoffs this season.

"All that stuff - locker rooms, whatever - you don't care about that," Biron said. "You care about winning, that's all."

The Islanders simply haven't done enough winning to draw crowds. The recent losing streak, Gordon's firing and Bailey's demotion have all served to dishearten a fan base that was willing to see this rebuilding project through, but now that owner Charles Wang seems fed up with losing millions each year and with no Lighthouse at the end of the tunnel, the fans have stayed away.

And that means this rivalry is dimmed. Tortorella, again unwittingly, described what a rivalry means to him: "It's two teams that have had a few knock-down, drag-out playoff series," he said.

There hasn't been enough playoff hockey around here this decade to qualify. Maybe on Thursday the Islanders-Rangers rivalry can start to be rebuilt, too.

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