Wednesday night’s entry in the bitter Islanders-Rangers rivalry is a historic one, strange and unfortunate circumstances aside.
The teams met for the first time at UBS Arena, the new, $1.1 billion facility which is hosting just its third NHL game after the COVID-19- and injury-depleted Islanders christened their long-awaited modern home with back-to-back losses to the Flames and Maple Leafs this weekend.
Years from now, of course, the fact the Islanders have seven players in COVID-19 protocol, plus top-pair defenseman Ryan Pulock and second-line center Brock Nelson on injured reserve with lower-body issues, will be less remembered.
What will be remembered is that the game will have opened a new chapter in the New York rivalry.
Wednesday marked the 142nd time the Islanders have hosted the Rangers in a regular-season game, not to mention eight playoff series between 1975-94. All but eight of those games were played at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders went 7-1-0 against the Rangers at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center between 2015-19.
Overall, the Islanders entered Wednesday with an overall 75-53-8-5 home record against the Rangers.
But it started with a loss on Oct. 21, 1972 before a crowd of 14,665, marking the first Islanders home game to sell out at the Coliseum, per team statistician Eric Hornick.
The expansion Islanders, in the midst of a 1-6-1 start (the last category being ties in those days), en route to a 12-60-6 finish, dropped their first-ever regular-season game to the Rangers, 2-1. Considering they had lost their previous two games by an aggregate, 12-4, it was a decent showing for the Phil Goyette-coached squad (Goyette would last just 48 games in his first NHL head coaching job and never land a second one).
Vic Hadfield opened the scoring for the Rangers with a power-play goal at 10:06 of the second period. Craig Cameron, with the second of his career-high 19 goals that season for the Islanders (he also played for the Blues and Minnesota North Stars between 1967-76), beat goalie Gilles Villemure to tie the game at 1-1 at 13:42 of the second period.
But Bobby Rousseau, who won four Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1960s, scored the winner at 7:05 of the third period as the Islanders were outshot, 33-25. Future Hall of Fame NHL executive Glen Sather had the secondary assist.
The teams combined for 32 penalty minutes and the game’s lone fight featured two Hall of Famers. The Rangers’ Rod Gilbert, fighting for the sixth and final time in a career that spanned 1960-77 per hockeyfights.com, battled Islanders goalie "Battlin’" Billy Smith. It was Smith’s second career fight and the first of 14 he had as an Islander.
The teams’ first game at Barclays Center also ended 2-1, with the Islanders winning a shootout on Dec. 2, 2015, before a sell-out crowd of 15,795. It was an energetic, entertaining game between two teams that would qualify for the playoffs, the Rangers with 101 points and the Islanders with 100. The Islanders held a 37-34 shot advantage.
Former Islanders captain John Tavares opened the scoring with a five-on-three, power-play goal at 12:22 of the second period, cutting in from the right circle with defensemen Keith Yandle and Dan Girardi both in the penalty box. The Rangers’ Viktor Stalberg tied the game at 1 at 18:37 of the second period as he deflected defenseman Marc Staal’s shot.
In the shootout, Kyle Okposo converted on the Islanders’ first attempt before Henrik Lundqvist stopped Frans Nielsen and Tavares. But Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak turned aside Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello and, finally, defenseman Dan Boyle’s deliberate try.
Now, the rivalry has a new home.