A year ago this time, the first Rangers-Islanders game of the season was a spirited affair, where the Islanders deviated from then-new coach Scott Gordon's system about half way through the game, leading to a 4-2 loss. Twelve months later, there is already talk about an attendance dip after five games (13,349 early last year -- including the Rangers game -- versus 12,065 now), while tomorrow night that average will magically bump upward.
But think about where these franchises were a year ago: The Rangers fresh off their Melrose-conquering Euro trip that fed an ultimately false hot start. The Islanders in clear re-build mode, but still early enough in the year for the veterans (and the coach) to talk themselves into thinking the goal was a playoff spot. At this time last season, new free agent addition Mark Streit had 3 goals already, while Doug Weight had 5 assists.
While the Rangers steadily declined until their coaching change, the Islanders spiraled downward until dumping veterans at the deadline and enjoying a quite modest late-season bounce that gave glimpse of the future -- without screwing up John Tavares hopes.
That story is still pretty familiar, but for a fun look back to a year ago, check out these interview clips from last year's first Rangers-Islanders post-game. I don't suggest you watch all of that 13-minute video, but if you skip around you'll find Gordon facing his first Battle of NY scrum, a not-quite-deer-eyed Kyle Okposo at the beginning of his first full season (he tied the game 1-1 and had 7 shots), a disappointed Joey MacDonald explaining how the four Rangers goals got by him (Chris Drury's banked off him 55 seconds into the game), and around the 11-minute mark of the video, now-departed captain Billy Guerin being pretty adamant about what went wrong. (If you watch any segment, watch that Guerin bit for his cut-to-the-chase tone.)
It's a shame these two teams are so rarely in the playoff mix at the same time. We're due for some of that energy.
Last year I thought the Sather Effect would keep the Rangers down for a while, but then he lucked into some decent decisions. They went out and got John Tortorella, who has a way of righting a wayward ship. Give Tortorella a goalie and a whip, and he can do some damage. The reliability of Marian Gaborik's health notwithstanding, the Rangers are in a better place than they were last year -- in part thanks to Bob Gainey bailing Glen Sather out on the Scott Gomez contract (another bit of fortune), and in part thanks to inspiring performances by the Rangers' two rookie defensemen, overage collegiate free agent Matt Gilroy and Calvin de Haan's former teammate Michael Del Zotto. Damn.
Are the Islanders in a Better Place than a Year Ago?
In a word, yes -- though in part by default. Last year this time, some fans were still (somehow) unclear that the rebuild was in full effect. Meanwhile, within the roster there were several veterans who were about to become quite unhappy -- no matter how many or how few minutes they took from the Youth Evaluation Agenda. It's fair for a results-oriented fan to complain that the Islanders haven't spent money, they didn't add Alex Tanguay (who's off to a horrible start, by the way), they don't have a chance at the playoffs. But the Islanders have been pretty up-front about their rebuild plan, so if those are your beefs, you just don't have the stomach or patience for this.
Personally, regardless of Charles Wang's past missteps as owner, I'm focused on what he's done since committing to Garth Snow's plan two summers ago. Thus far, they have stuck to that plan. (Maybe early patience is the easy part, but so it goes.) Combine that need for patience with the uncertainty around the Lighthouse Project, and I'm not going to complain about Charles Wang going cheap with this payroll until he has a clear picture of the club's financial and geographic future.
Meanwhile, the roster has John Tavares, they have a growing Kyle Okposo, an astute find in Matt Moulson -- and most important for what is a "lost" year, standings-wise: They're getting the time to finally determine what it is they have in Sean Bergenheim, Jeff Tambellini, Blake Comeau, Bruno Gervais and Jack Hillen, to name a few. Many fans already have firm convictions about those hardly-blue-chip prospects, but after enough exposure this season, they should no longer be a matter for debate.
Food for Curious Thought
At this moment, Tambellini has the last three Islanders goals. If he scores against the Rangers, his identity among fans just might change ... With the Maple Leafs thumping of the Ducks last night, the Islanders with their weird 1-4-5 record are the last team without a regulation win.
This series record was lopsided last year (1-5), though most games were close: The goal differential in six games was 19-12, and the Islanders didn't even manage a PP goal. (Blake Comeau, oddly, led them in scoring with 2 goals, 2 assists in only 4 games). No matter where these teams are, one thing remains true: The intensity of the rivalry overcomes their records and any bland play (see Renney, Tom) to make it an event.
While this team is unpredictable, underskilled, and still finding its identity both collectively and individually, that's the one thing they should be able to do tomorrow: At least make it an event.