Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) blocks a shot by Rangers...

Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) blocks a shot by Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) in the first period at Madison Square Garden, Saturday, April 13, 2024. Credit: Corey Sipkin

We all deserve more of this.

Certainly the fans. The players, too. Even us cynical media types.

For if the Rangers’ 3-2 shootout win over the Islanders in a Kid’s Day matinee at Madison Square Garden showed us one thing, it’s that this latent rivalry, devoid of a playoff matchup since 1994, would grip New York the way it did in the 1970s and ’80s.

The Garden was electric on Saturday as the teams’ four-game season series concluded with the Rangers’ third win, two past regulation, just as UBS Arena was on Tuesday night for the Islanders’ tension-filled 4-2 win.

The play went back and forth, the faster Rangers pushing but the Islanders clogging the neutral zone and staying even through a goalies’ duel.

So is latent too harsh a description? Not really. The NHL has watered down division play, so the teams meet only four times a season, sometimes only three. And many is the coach, such as former Islanders bench boss Barry Trotz or former Rangers pilot John Tortorella, who swear rivalries can truly develop only with playoff meetings.

Saturday at the Garden, then, was a teaser for what hopefully will come — although the Rangers winning the skills contest at the end of 65 minutes of thrilling hockey pushes the teams further away from a potential first-round matchup.

“How great would that be?” Islanders captain Anders Lee told Newsday in the team’s nearly deserted postgame dressing room. “It would be awesome. We’ve got work to do. Matchups will happen and fall into place. Regardless, let’s take care of business with these two.”

The Islanders, looking to lock up third place in the Metropolitan Division, will face the Devils on the road Monday night and conclude the regular season against the Penguins on Wednesday night at UBS Arena.

The Rangers, who set a franchise record with their 54th win, will conclude the regular season Monday night against the Senators at the Garden. They can finish first both in the division and the Eastern Conference.

But if the Hurricanes, who will end the season against non-playoff qualifiers Chicago and the Blue Jackets, can pass the Rangers, an all-New York first-round series remains a possibility.

“It’s a pretty good rivalry,” said Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, whose sweeping glove save of Mathew Barzal’s shot from the left with 6.9 seconds left highlighted overtime. “They have a really good team. A very good defensive team, blocking a lot of shots. They play smart hockey, so they’re tough to play against.”

Three of the four games between the teams could have gone either way.

The Rangers had to rally from a three-goal deficit in the second period to win their Stadium Series game, 6-5, in overtime on Feb. 18 at MetLife Stadium.

The Rangers clearly were the better team in a 5-2 win at the Garden on March 17, scoring the last three goals.

On Tuesday at UBS, the Islanders dominated the first period. The Rangers controlled the puck the next two periods before Lee’s empty-netter clinched it.

That game, though, was more memorable for Rangers coach Peter Laviolette calling out defenseman Adam Pelech’s totally accidental collision with Mika Zibanejad at center ice as “intentional” and “vicious.” He also applied the “vicious” label to defenseman Noah Dobson’s unpenalized hit from behind on Vincent Trocheck just before Lee’s empty-netter.

Dobson was unavailable Saturday because of an upper-body injury. Saturday’s game was all the better for there being no personal vendetta against Pelech despite Laviolette’s inclusion of 6-8 penalty magnet Matt Rempe into his lineup. Zibanejad did pick up some speed and check Pelech into the side wall early in the first period, then both skated away.

“It was a great atmosphere,” said Islanders center Brock Nelson, who scored twice. “A lot on the line for both teams and we knew the intensity would be high, having played them twice in a short span. We’re fighting for every point we can get. We’d like to close that one out and get two, but it’s a big point right now for us.”

If the teams don’t meet in the playoffs, it will be 30 years without a Rangers-Islanders series, and that’s a generation of hockey fans missing out.

Starting with the Islanders’ memorable three-game win in the preliminary round in 1975 in their first playoff appearance in their third season of existence, the teams met eight times in the postseason through the Rangers’ four-game sweep in the first round in 1994 en route to their last Stanley Cup win.

Regular-season games are all fun and good — and Saturday was off the charts in terms of those criteria — but Rangers-Islanders playoff series always were special regardless of the outcome. It’s not as if the fan bases are geographically separated. It’s probably a fair statement that there are at least as many Rangers fans on Long Island as Islanders fans.

Saturday just left us wanting more.


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