On Dec. 3, 2006, the 13-9-3 New York Islanders and the 13-9-4 New York Rangers met at Madison Square Garden. It was a meaningful game between two bitter rivals that had lost touch after years of struggling. It was a Sunday night.
The game was the weirdest back-and-forth style tilt I can remember. The Islanders chased a young upstart named Henrik Lundqvist, scoring four goals on their first eight shots. They went into the first intermission up 4-0. It didn't feel as safe as it should have.
The Rangers would eventually show up, quickly cutting the Islanders lead to 4-3. I remember Brendan Shanahan's goal vividly. It came off a bad turnover from Brendan Witt. I started to entertain the idea of feigning ill and skipping school the next day. The torturous up-and-down play continued as the Isles extended their lead through Viktor Kozlov only to see it cut back down on a hat-trick goal from Shanahan.
I was sweating, my mouth was dry, I grabbed a trash can in case the Rangers scored again.
Luckily something had gotten into Kozlov that night. He would pot two more goals and see the Islanders to a 7-4 win over the Smurfs. It was the only time in his career that he scored four goals in a game. That season was a rarity: Both teams made the playoffs, finishing two points apart.
After the game, I was emotionally drained. It felt like the game took six hours to complete. During the game I kept asking myself why I put myself through this. And then I read Kozlov's post-game comments.
"Sometimes the puck goes in and sometimes it does not."
A proper derby like the one we have with the Rangers is a heavy, emotionally exhausting part of life. The cultural, socioeconomic, and tribal nature of derbies brings out feeling from parts of your soul that you never knew existed.
This is why New York Islander fans are quite lucky to have the New York Rangers and vice versa. Proper derbies are becoming a thing of the past and those who are involved in a good one should count themselves among the lucky few. Instead of the organic bloodfeuds of yesteryear we are getting forcefed media-created, ratings-driven rivalries.
There is, of course, no way we can settle on what is the greatest rivalry in sports. All we can do is try to explain the impact that these contests have on our lives.
When I try to explain to other fans what it is like when we play the Rangers, I try to separate it from better understood rivalries. It's not Yankees-Red Sox or Habs-B's, because the sinners live among the saints. It isn't Yankees-Mets because we are in the same division as our bigger, richer brother.
We hate the Rangers because they are the Rangers, a club that despite their meager amount of hardware in 80+ years, consider themselves one of the league's most "storied" franchises. We can't stand them because they are a stable, fiscal-juggernaut that will never want for money nor stars. Their fans are detestable because they pay attention when the team is good and take vacation during off-years and watch the Yankees or something else instead.
We love beating Ranger fans because they don't know what it's like to be kicked when they are down -- repeatedly. They don't know what it's like to see poor managerial decisions almost ruin everything. While the Rangers can get away with throwing money at their problems, the Islanders have even failed at doing that. For years we've tried to throw money at every big free agent to ever grace the market, yet they never came.
We've had to climb out of this mess the old fashioned way and damn, it feels good.
A proper derby is not just a game between two teams that are close to each other. No, a proper derby is an ongoing saga that continues to build and build, getting heavier with every passing day. And after all of this, after all the fighting (both on and off the ice), after all the name calling, and after all the arguing it still comes down to one thing.
Sometimes the puck goes in and sometimes it does not.