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Hockey returns as Islanders earn season-opening win over Rangers in the best of rivalries

The Rangers prepare for their home opener against

The Rangers prepare for their home opener against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

Hockey’s back! And like pretty much everything else in sports during COVID-19 times, "normal" has taken a detour onto unrecognizable back roads.

Things that would have seemed inconceivable a year ago suddenly make emergency sense, from the playoff bubbles of last summer to the division-opponents-only, 56-game, no-fans regular season of 2021.

But Thursday night’s opener at least brought some hockey comfort food to Madison Square Garden in the form of Islanders vs. Rangers, a rivalry nearly a half-century in the making that will play out seven more times this season.

How it turns out will go far in determining each team’s success or lack thereof.

The Islanders won the first matchup, 4-0, a start that illustrated one of the subplots that makes the rivalry extra delicious these days: The teams are at radically different life stages.

Lou Lamoriello’s Islanders seem like something out of the pre-free agency era, when the early-1980s dynasty could keep 16 players together through all four Cup seasons.

The last three Islanders seasons have brought nearly that much stability, with changes at the margins but the core intact.

That almost certainly helped them navigate the playoff bubble well enough to win three rounds, and it should do the same now that COVID protocols have moved south of the Canadian border.

It certainly looked that way early in the opener, with the Islanders leading 3-0 after one period.

The Islanders had a rough patch in the second period but worked their way out of it, which coach Barry Trotz attributed to their battle-tested history and discipline.

"Structure and foundation is the security blanket when all hell breaks loose," he said.

The Rangers are in an entirely different place, with a talented but extremely young roster that includes the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere, who was born in the autumn of 2001.

Kaapo Kakko also is 19. K’Andre Miller is 20. Filip Chytil is 21.

The team’s media relations staff emphasized the point with some eye-opening notes after the game.

It was the first time two 19-year-olds played for the Rangers in an opener since 1943. It was the first time they had seven players 22 or younger appear in an opener. It was the first time they had four rookies play in an opener since 1989.

That youth showed in a series of early mistakes, including a shaky start for goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who became the first opening-night starter other than Henrik Lundqvist in a decade-and-a-half.

It is possible the Rangers’ youth and inexperience will make it difficult for them to navigate these circumstances. It is equally possible that they are too young to know the difference, will shake off the bad start and will be just fine.

"You look at their team and they’ve made a lot of changes in recent years and they’ve done it quickly to get back to being a really good hockey team," Islanders captain Anders Lee said before the game. "So kudos for them.

"It presents a harder challenge for us day-in and day-out playing against them. But like always, any time we see the Rangers, it’s a good game no matter what."

The league is counting on that, and on more competitive games than the first one. But on Day One, the Islanders looked a lot like the team that came within two victories of a Stanley Cup Final in September.

"When you get that close like we did last season, it makes you just want to get back to that spot and take that next step," Lee said. "You can’t just get there. You have to play a whole regular season and put the work in, and it kind of started with that mentality tonight.

"We have a long way to go, and we have a great foundation to build off of and I think our group is really excited for that challenge."

New York Sports