Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
The hot topic among New York-area hock ey mavens Thursday night was whether the winner of the Islanders- Rangers game might actually be the loser, and vice versa.
This was because of the strategic calculus of playoff pairings, one theory being that it might be better to be the top wild card than to finish third in the Metropolitan Division, thus avoiding the Penguins and Capitals in the first two rounds.
Crossing over to the Atlantic Division, starting with the Panthers, looked more manageable on paper. But who knows, real ly? That assumption has “be careful what you wish for” written all over it.
We shall see. For now, all we know is that the Islanders’ 4-1 victory at Madison Square Garden gave them a 4-0 record in the season series and left the teams tied with 99 points, with two games left for the Islanders and one for the Rangers.
But alas, all that discussion of playoff pairings and Thursday night’s game itself was a reminder of what might have been: a matchup every hockey fan in New York would have embraced. Most of the players, too.
For much of the season, it appeared the best intra-region rivalry in New York sports might well visit the postseason for the first time since 1994, and in the first year the teams shared a city.
Then . . . poof.
The Penguins blew past both teams on the leaderboard and secured second place with a victory over the Capitals on Thursday night. So here we are, with no hope of Rangers-Islanders before the conference finals.
That would be awesome but is a long way off, especially given both New York teams’ injury issues. And it’s a pity.
The Rangers and Islanders came within a Game 7 Isles loss to the Capitals of a second-round series last year that would have had Nassau Coliseum rocking in its final spring. But no.
Not that hockey fans have much to complain about around here. This is the third time in four years that both the Rangers and Islanders are in the playoffs. Gotham’s basketball fans would sign up for that in a New York minute.
So for now, all we have is another regular-season series in the books, one the Islanders dominated.
Asked after the game how it felt to sweep the Rangers, Islanders captain John Tavares confirmed that it “feels great,” as if we didn’t know. “Our fans take a lot of pride in these games, and so do we,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”
The teams gave fans a sense of what they will be missing come playoff time with a spirited first period that gave both goalies plenty of practice.
But the Islanders scored thrice in the second, even with eight players scratched and with Anders Lee having left the game with an apparent fractured leg.
The best news for the Islanders was the excellent play of goalie Thomas Greiss, whose sharpness will be a must against the Penguins or Panthers. Henrik Lundqvist got yanked after two, saved to fight another day.
“I thought we played a pretty good game, but for some reason this year they definitely had our number,” Lundqvist said.
On to the weekend, with the Islanders in position to finish in third place, something they plan to try their best to do, matchups be darned. “We want to win every game,” Casey Cizikas said.
Perhaps some a bit more than others.
Shane Prince, who had a goal and an assist, said of playing at the Garden, “It’s pretty crazy.”
Winning makes it better. “It’s pretty hyped up and real fun to be a part of,” he said. “Since I’ve been here, we’re 2-0 in this rink, so it’s awesome.”