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Even Rangers fans missed having games against Islanders at the Coliseum

Newsday sports columnist Neil Best breaks down the atmosphere at  the first Islanders-Rangers game since 2015 to be held at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. (Credit: Newsday / Ryan Gerbosi)

Michael Brito was wearing a replica Brendan Lemieux Rangers jersey on Thursday night, walking the concourse of NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum for the first time in five years and loving it.

“I have never gone to one game in Brooklyn, never would want to go there to watch a hockey game,” said the 29-year-old, who grew up in Elmont and lives in Bayside, Queens.

“This is where the Islanders should be. As a die-hard Rangers fan, I’m glad they’re back here. It brings that rivalry out . . . It’s a lot more fun.”

That was before the game. Then the puck dropped and the night lived up to its billing, with the Rangers securing a raucous, entertaining 3-2 victory on Chris Kreider’s power-play goal with 24.6 seconds remaining.

Rangers coach David Quinn said before the game that he was looking forward to the experience. What did he think when it was over? “Well,’’ he said, “if you score a goal with 25 seconds to go, it’s pretty damn good.”

But while the winners naturally enjoyed the evening more, it was a good night in general for New York-area hockey.

Kreider, whose time with the Rangers dates to the pre-Brooklyn Islanders era, said it all felt familiar.

“Yeah, in terms of the fans and the energy, I mean, it’s one of the few buildings, I think, where you can hear the fans from the locker room,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting. So it’s a fun place to play.”

Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev said, “I love it. Historic rivalry, and super fun.”

How long had it been since the Rangers met the Islanders at the Coliseum? This long: Ryan Strome had an assist for the Islanders and Derick Brassard had an assist for the Rangers in that game.

That was on March 10, 2015, when the Rangers won, 2-1, after which the Islanders left for Brooklyn, where they have hosted the Rangers eight times and won seven.

Five years later, Strome is a Ranger, Brassard is an Islander and the Islanders have two home arenas and are building a third. Complicated times.

But Thursday brought welcome clarity to a cherished rivalry that has not quite been the same in Brooklyn.

Asked beforehand what he expected from his first Rangers-Islanders game at the Coliseum, Islanders coach Barry Trotz said, “We’ll see. It will be interesting. It might be safer on the ice [than in the stands].”

Both teams’ fans were engaged from the start, and they stayed engaged thanks to the intense action.

“It’s certainly a different environment here than Barclays Center,” Matt Martin said before the game. “It’s still a lot of fun to play at Barclays. It’s just that newer buildings don’t hold the noise quite as well. The ceilings are higher.

“There’s something about games in this building that are loud and hostile and a lot of fun. I think both fan bases show pretty well in these. I remember they had [Marian] Gaborik and we had [Evgeni] Nabokov. It was ‘Gabby, Nabby, Gabby, Nabby,’ the fans going back and forth.”

The Rangers will visit the Coliseum again on Feb. 25, and the rivalry is set to move to a new arena in Elmont in 2021-22. But what of next season?

That plot thickened on Thursday when Nassau County Executive Laura Curran sent a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman asking the league to move the Islanders’ entire home schedule to the Coliseum for 2020-21.

She wrote, “It’s what the fans want. It’s what the players want.”

Bettman called the request “premature” but added, “It’s something we’ll consider at the appropriate time.”

The only Rangers to have played as Rangers at the Coliseum before Thursday were Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Jesper Fast, Micheal Haley and Kreider.

“I’ve been on both sides,” said Haley, an Islander from 2010 to 2012. “It’s huge. It’s not very far. You’ve got a lot of mixed fans. It goes back a long, long time.”

On Thursday, it was back where it belongs.

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