New York Rangers left wing Sean Avery (16) checks New...

New York Rangers left wing Sean Avery (16) checks New York Islanders left wing Jon Sim (16) after a whistle during the second period at Nassau Coliseum. (Dec. 2, 2010) Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

Terrible defense, terrible backchecking, bad goaltending, lots of empty seats . . . Last night's installment of Rangers-Islanders was no one's finest hour.

The rivalry, such as it is, has produced 21 goals in two games and some very sloppy play from two teams that can't afford to be so cavalier with the puck and with their coverage.

Last night, the Rangers managed to be the lesser of two evils in a 6-5 win.

"I thought we did some good things," coach John Tortorella said, "and I thought there were some godawful things."

But at least they got two points. The Islanders, in greater need of wins, scored five goals, only the second time they've gotten to five this season. (The other, of course, was when they scored six on the Rangers on Oct. 11.) But they're still stuck on five wins because they seem to have forgotten some hockey basics.

"You learn from day one that the shift after a goal is the most important," said defenseman Mark Eaton, who was on ice for four of the six Rangers goals. "We seem to have forgotten that of late. You have to be smart, stay with the forecheck, and we just haven't done it."

From the start, this was not a solid night. The announced crowd of 13,742 was the largest of the season in 10 Islanders home dates, but the eyes said otherwise: Huge swathes of empty seats dotted the Coliseum, which felt at the start not like a game between two area rivals but could have been a routine visit from the Kings, the Bruins or any other slightly better-than-average NHL team.

Beyond quibbling over real attendance vs. announced crowds - and paying as much as $170 a seat for a "premium" game such as last night's - there was simply not a lot of buzz at the start.

The heavyweights threw down just 3:24 in, and Derek Boogaard and Trevor Gillies gave it the old "Slap Shot" try in a long, roundhouse-filled bout. But even then, short of a few "Let's Go Rangers" chants, the building wasn't alive.

That may have had something to do with the Rangers' almost total control. They didn't have much to show for it until Erik Christensen snapped a shot over Rick DiPietro 8:11 in, but the puck was below the Islanders' goal line for what felt like half that time. The Rangers forwards had freedom to roam and the Islanders defensemen weren't strong enough to make the Rangers do anything different.

Jack Capuano has tried to install a system that gives the Islanders more of a "read-and-react" style on the forecheck rather than Scott Gordon's high-speed, attacking system.

Gordon knew his roster's limitations. If his less talented team could force opposing defensemen into turnovers, that could cover up for some deficiencies.

The Islanders had scored first in four straight games before last night, but still they seem hesitant under Capuano.

Last night was the starkest example with 25 giveaways - eight by DiPietro - and worse, a tendency to sit back after getting the lead.

"The last thing we should be is complacent," Eaton said. "We're not exactly lighting the world on fire here."

Neither team is, especially when the two locals meet. The goals may be good for the highlight reels, but there's no chance either the Rangers or Islanders will get better playing this way.

"I guess it's just what happens in this building," Tortorella said.

Maybe Friday night, at the Garden, we'll see some quality. Last night, there were goals, giveaways, precious few saves and not a lot of atmosphere.

Not what Rangers-Islanders calls to mind.