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When it’s the Rangers and Islanders at the Coliseum on a Friday night in April, all should be right with our little corner of the hockey world.
But it is not. Well, at least not in Manhattan. Because the Blueshirts have been unable to keep up their half of the bargain, we are almost surely headed to a 27th straight year without a playoff Battle of New York.
It was a smaller league way back when, but our two teams met in the playoffs in a seminal series in 1975 (what in the world was Steve Vickers thinking?) and then in another landmark matchup in 1979 that was front-page material, and then in 1981, 1982, 1983 and a fourth straight year in 1984, which ended with Ken Morrow in overtime.
Can’t you just hear Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days” as the soundtrack of the era?
There was the series in 1990 that featured a riot at the buzzer of Game 1, and then there was 1994, always 1994 if your heart pumps blue blood, and the annihilation that might have made up for J.P. Parise, Morrow and those last three Stanley Cups on the Island that all went through the Garden.
But that was it. The music stopped. And in the intervening 27 years (and 26 NHL seasons, owing to the canceled 2004-05), rarely have the two teams been good at the same time and, honestly, 1984 was the last time the Rangers and Islanders have both been legitimate Cup contenders entering the postseason.
Don’t blame Lou Lamoriello.
The Islanders have as good a shot as any team in the league to skate off with the chalice. That would be a pretty neat accomplishment if they can achieve it; yes, it would. But more to this point is that the Islanders are on their merry way to finishing ahead of the Rangers in the standings for the fourth straight season, something the area’s current Flagship Franchise has not done in a generation, since finishing ahead of the Blueshirts for, let’s see now, 13 straight years starting with 1975-76.
You could almost hear the reduced capacity crowd chanting “1994” if the Islanders’ own clock hadn’t stopped at 1983.
Both teams have made the playoffs in the same year only four times since the Rangers’ championship season. Only twice in that span have both teams finished in the NHL’s overall top 10, in 2014-15 and 2015-16 when the Islanders landed in 10th place each season while the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy the first of those years and placed ninth the following season.
Not once have both teams won a round in the same tournament, though 2015 was as close you can get. In 2015, the Islanders were a Game 7 victory over the Capitals away from setting up a Round Two clash with the Blueshirts, who’d taken out the Penguins in a five-game first round and seemed on their way to a return trip to the final.
Alas, the Islanders mustered 11 shots on net in that showdown in Washington and lost, 2-1, when Evgeny Kuzentsov beat Jaro Halak at 12:32 of the third for the winner. So that was that for Liza Minelli singing “New York, New York” before the drop of the puck for Game 1 of the next round. Instead, the Blueshirts lost three of the first four of the series to the Capitals before storming back — teams do not simply come back to overcome 3-1 deficits, they storm back — to win the series in seven.
In retrospect, that was the last hurrah for the Rangers, who were upset in the conference finals by the Lightning and have won one playoff series since, in the 2017 first round against the Canadiens, in which Henrik Lundqvist outplayed Carey Price and Jimmy Vesey was often a physical force.
The Islanders are primed. Lamoriello did what Lamoriello does, making a late-season trade in which he acquires players who not only have the ability to solidify his team but also fit in with his, his coach’s and his team’s philosophy. It is about structure as well as talent for Lamoriello, and that’s why the twin acquisition of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils was such a no-brainer.
When Islanders coach Barry Trotz lays out a game plan, he does not have to do so twice. Would that were the case for the Rangers’ David Quinn, who might at least have had an easier job getting through to his team for Friday night’s clash against the area Titan in the wake of Thursday’s lackluster showing against Pittsburgh.
“Sometimes the greatest teacher is failure, and sometimes it’s the only teacher,” Quinn said hours before Friday’s contest. “Sometimes you’ve got to feel pain to your core, and you’ve really got to suffer before you learn a valuable lesson.”
Suffering is something both fan bases have in common.
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