John Tavares couldn't have known too much about Rangers-Islanders before he was drafted first overall by the Isles in June of 2009. A teenager from Ontario would have to be some student of the game to understand J.P. Parise, the Potvin song, Ken Morrow in overtime and all the rest of what made this rivalry unparalleled in any sport around these parts.
But Tavares is learning. Fast.
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"Everything seems a little heightened," Tavares said yesterday morning, before the first Isles-Rangers game of six this regular season. "When you go out and meet the fans around here, there's one thing they always say: 'Beat the Rangers.' People care about it and it doesn't take long to get that."
You need a long memory to get why, though, beyond the proximity. The Isles' first great moment in the spring of 1975, when Parise hushed the Madison Square Garden crowd in overtime of Game 3; and on to 1979, when John Davidson and Co. sent that same Garden crowd into a frenzy by eliminating the Islanders, the best team in the league, in the semifinals.
The most recent high points in each franchise still factor in the other: Pierre Turgeon, David Volek and the underdog Isles reaching the conference final in 1993 (when the high-powered Rangers missed the playoffs), and the Rangers steamrolling the Isles in four games to open their Stanley Cup championship run a year later.
Part of what's missing is that postseason juice. That 1994 first-round sweep by the Rangers is the last time the two rivals met in the playoffs. They've only both been in the postseason together just once since then, in 2007.
But perhaps, with both teams rebuilding around youth the last few seasons, the odds that Islanders and Rangers being good at the same time are much better. "This could be the start of something a little bit more like it used to be," Dave Maloney said. "The core of both teams has been together a little bit. That definitely helps."
The old days needed very little help, with six playoff meetings in a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Rangers still training in Long Beach. It helped that both teams were good and there was very little roster change from year to year.
And the fans. "It's like families get divided, best friends are on opposite sides," said Mike Mottau, who was drafted by the Rangers and played for the Devils before joining the Isles. "When you can hear the other team's fans in the building, you know it's serious."
"I always liked to play at Madison Square Garden," Butch Goring said. "It was a lot more fun to beat them in their place."
Tim Erixon got his first taste of the rivalry Saturday. His father, Jan, spent a decade with the Rangers, but he didn't have to outright tell his son who the hated rivals are.
"I pretty much knew that already," Tim Erixon said.
In two weeks, the Isles will welcome back several members of the 1992-93 team that upset the Caps and Penguins before falling in the conference final. Turgeon, the leader of that scrappy Isles team, got on the phone Saturday to talk about that surprising run, and the more surprising fact that it's been 20 seasons since the Islanders won a playoff series.
He was asked about the Rangers fans who used to dot the Coliseum for the Rangers-Islanders games.
"Isn't it still like that?" he said, laughing. "It's always been that way. That's what makes it so great."