For all of us who were certain that the New York hockey season would be over before the first snowfall, the joke is on us. Sure, it remains fine to doubt that the Islanders and Rangers still will be going strong when the crocuses bloom, but they are dead set on showing that the fall and winter will not be a complete wasteland around here.
Both rivals, who sloshed through the slush to face each other in a wild 7-5 Islanders win Thursday night at Barclays Center, are at least giving it a go. Despite the dire predictions from many of us, they are not totally adrift (Giants, Jets) or almost assuredly lottery-bound (Knicks, Nets).
Unlike anything New York’s football and basketball teams will experience in the forseeable future, this actually was seen as a significant night by both the Rangers and Islanders. It was a lift for the latter and a pain for the former.
“We didn’t play well enough to win,” Rangers coach David Quinn said after his first experience in this long-running series. “Obviously, you felt the excitement in the building, but you know what? No matter what rivalry you’re in, once you start playing, you’re playing.”
Islanders forward Val Filppula, who had three assists, said, “You look at the standings and you see you’re close, these are definitely important games.”
As ludicrous as it may sound to use the phrase “meaningful games in November” in the National Hockey League, November is a surprisingly vital month. Conventional wisdom around the league says that teams that are in playoff position on Thanksgiving often make the playoffs. Last season, six of eight such teams ultimately proved that point (the Islanders and Red Wings were the two who eventually fell out).
Even though the two hockey teams east of the Hudson River are focused on the future, neither has given up on now.
The Islanders have a general manager who has imposed an air of accountability and a coach who has proved he can bring out the best in a thin roster. The Rangers have a plan, an abundance of young talent and a future Hall of Fame goalie (who was pulled during this game).
A new quirky part of the rivalry is the role of Barclays Center, from which the Islanders can’t wait to flee. Islanders fans hate it even more than the players do and the Rangers probably hate it even more than Islanders fans do, having dropped to 0-6-1 there.
Chalk it up as something else to talk about. Not that Rangers and Islanders fans ever are short on topics. “These people live their lives intertwined with each other every day and I think there’s a constant banter,” said Cal Clutterbuck, who scored the empty-net goal that iced it after the Islanders let a three-goal lead slip to 6-5. “When you bring up the Islanders, the first thing out of people’s mouths is something about the Rangers. I’m sure it’s the same way with Ranger guys. So it’s fun to be part of a rivalry that you can live every day, not just game days.”
What really has stoked the rivalry, though, is that the two teams have been battling over the same piece of pie for more than 40 years. It is that way even this season, when both are in the “overachiever” class.
“These division games are huge. You kind of look at it as a big swing in the standings,” said Islanders captain Anders Lee, whose goal made it 5-3. ‘You can’t get these points back later in the year. Even though it’s a big rivalry game, there’s a lot on the line with the two points.”
Yes, yes, we know these aren’t great teams and we remember that the Mets started 11-1. For now, though, the hockey teams do have pulses. They are miles ahead of New York’s football and basketball teams.
The Islanders and Rangers are the only ones with a shot at bringing some heat this winter.