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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Rangers-Islanders would be nice matchup in springtime, too

New York Rangers center Brandon Pirri and New

New York Rangers center Brandon Pirri and New York Islanders center Casey Cizikas face off during the first period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Good for the NHL for sending the Islanders across the river to Manhattan last night, setting up the first Rangers opener against their longtime rivals in 19 years, and only the second one ever.

Why not?

Mid-autumn hockey always is a marketing and media challenge, so this was a good way to alert the area populace that the season actually has begun.

Hey, it’s something. With the local baseball nines through for the season, the football teams on a combined 0-6 stretch and basketball yet to begin, it’s nice to have something different to talk about.

The best part was that after a so-so start, in which the vibe at the Garden did not feel much different from most mid-October NHL fare, regardless of the opponent, things got wild and wacky in the third period before the Rangers won, 5-3.

Six goals in the third period! Two uncharacteristically unwise penalties by Islanders captain John Tavares! Two fans ejected!

So, yes, fun was had. Still, though . . .

Starting a season with Islanders-Rangers is nice. Finishing one — at least the Metropolitan Division playoff part of one — would be nicer.

The pregame ceremony honoring the Rangers’ 90th season was a reminder of how long it has been since these teams met when it counted most.

There was Dave Maloney, captain of the team that battled the Islanders in an epic 1979 Cup semifinal. And there were the stars of the 1994 Stanley Cup winners — including Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter — the last Rangers team to face the Islanders in the playoffs, a four-game sweep in the first round.

The Islanders came within a Game 7 loss to the Capitals in 2015 of making it happen, but alas, the Rangers went on without them, eventually reaching the Eastern Conference final.

Anyway, the first step toward a playoff matchup is having both teams qualify. The Rangers got the first leg up on that, shrugging off two goals by the Islanders that tied it early in the third to storm back with three in a row of their own. The fact that Chris Kreider scored the second and set up the third with a gorgeous pass to Brandon Pirri was a good sign for the Rangers, because he long has had the potential to take a big step up into stardom.

Derek Stepan said he saw this coming in the preseason. “He’s been an absolute beast, and each year he seems to get better and better,” Stepan said.

Said Kreider: “As the game went on I felt like I did a better job getting my feet moving and finishing my checks.”

Kreider finished with a career-high seven shots on goal and four hits, displaying both elements of his skill-and-power game.

Beyond that the Rangers showed impressive speed — “Yeah, we’ve got some tempo,” Ryan McDonagh said — and got contributions from several of their newcomers. Pirri, one of seven players to make their Rangers debuts, ended up wearing the honorary Broadway Hat in the happy winning locker room.

“We didn’t really go into a shell and panic,” McDonagh said of the Islanders’ two goals in 4:04 early in the third. “We kept making plays and kept utilizing our speed.”

The Islanders did, too, at times, giving both teams the look of contenders.

“It was a good ice-breaker,” Tavares said. “It is what it is. We know we need to be better and find different ways to get it done.”

So, here we go.

Sure, life is a journey, not a destination, and for hockey fans there will be many entertaining ups and downs over the next six months, including more Rangers-Islanders get-togethers.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t daydream about mid-spring along the way.

The current playoff format invites a showdown, with its focus on divisional matchups.

Please, can we just do it already?

New York Sports