The most important, consistent, resilient figure in the Islanders-Rangers rivalry came up big one more time last night. Nassau Coliseum, a little creaky but still able at 43, rose to the special occasion.
In the teams' final regular-season meeting on Long Island, the old building withstood the roars and shrieks and dueling chants, standing just as tall as it did for the Rangers' first visit for an exhibition game on Sept. 27, 1972. It made you realize that the Coliseum's mere presence was what made the rivalry possible in the first place.
Without this building, which was so new and neat back for the exhibition, when Rangers winger Glen Sather poked home a puck from the crease for the building's first goal, there never would have been all the other moments that culminated in Tuesday night's farewell.
"You have to take every game the same, but this obviously had a special feel, knowing that this could be the last game here," said Kevin Hayes, who turned the momentum with a tying goal in the second period that helped the Rangers to a 2-1 victory. "It's always electric here. I've only been here twice, but I've heard about it and I've seen games here."
Maybe the rivals will meet here again in the playoffs. It sure would be something to see and to remember, although some Islanders fans aren't so sure. They cannot bear the thought of having their favorite place close down with a loss to the Rangers. They would rather see a series against anybody else.
What really mattered Tuesday night was that the Coliseum is responsible for the rivalry being as great as it is. The building isn't just where the Islanders play. It is who they are. It never was built to look glittery or especially pretty. It was just here to get the job done. The Coliseum and the team are from the suburbs, and proud of it.
"We were the country bumpkins from out on Long Island," Bill Torrey said recently, with thick sarcasm, about the Islanders' first playoff series clincher at Madison Square Garden in 1975.
The rivalry is too hot to die, especially with both teams being as good as they are. It just will never be the same. Imagine what the Red Sox-Yankees contretemps would be without Fenway Park.
"It is bittersweet," John Tavares said after a rare scoreless game, when he was asked about the move. "For us players, we've got to make a lot of changes as well. There is going to be a breaking-in, a getting-comfortable period. Certainly, I think there will be great things in Brooklyn."
But there is no denying the dynamic will be different when both teams will be making their homes within the New York City limits. "I think New Yorkers are New Yorkers and I think people from Long Island are very proud. I'm sure people from the city are the same. The rivalry has been great ever since it started, more than 40 years ago," Tavares said
Tuesday night, there was nothing epic or controversial or comic, in the mold of Ken Morrow's goal, Don Maloney's goal or Theo Fleury doing the chicken dance (and we know that you remember all of those episodes without having to look them up). There was symmetry, though. The first regular-season game between the two New York teams, on Oct. 21, 1972, also was a 2-1 Rangers win. History says the Islanders didn't let that stop them.
Maybe there will be big positives for the Islanders' side of the rivalry in Brooklyn. Perhaps the extra revenue streams will help the new owners spend consistently more on talent. Maybe the team wouldn't even have new owners if not for the assurance of a new home. Possibly, Islanders fans will find the train ride a bonding, celebratory experience, as Ranger fans have found over the years.
But one sure, sad fact is, it will never be the same.