The New York Rangers visited Barclays Center for the first time on Wednesday to face their now-official "crosstown" rivals, the New York Islanders, in front of a capacity crowd in a game that was broadcast on NBC Sports Network. (Wednesday Night Rivalry! This time with actual rivals!)
The Islanders won 2-1 in the shootout thanks to some timely penalty killing and a strong performance from Jaroslav Halak in a game that I've come to the conclusion can (and should) only be described as lit.
The turn up, as the kids say, was real.
To wit: it was the first NHL game at Barclays in which both teams were heavily booed when they took the ice, which says two things: 1) the split between Rangers allegiance and Islanders support was roughly 50-50, and 2) New Yorkers will absolutely let you know how much they hate something within 0.003648 seconds of it being placed in front of them.
All this to say: the fans spent the better part of the 65-plus minutes of game time—and an indeterminate amount of time both pre- and post-game—behaving exactly how you'd expect an intra-city rivalry crowd to behave in what amounted to an unofficial housewarming party at the Barc. (I'm calling it the Barc, now.)
Islanders fans YES-YES-YES'd in the direction of all Rangers fans within shouting distance after John Tavares's second-period goal; that chant was roundly mocked by Rangers fans making beer runs on the 200-level concourse after Viktor Stalberg tied the game six minutes later; Mike Bossy was in the building, I'm assuming with all four of his Stanley Cup rings in his pocket to use as de facto brass knuckles in case things got out of hand.
(Barely tangential aside: 20th century literary giant William Butler Yeats once said, "Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise." If Yeats were alive today and in attendance at NYR-NYI, he'd have a got dang heart attack.)
While the crowd at any Rangers-Islanders game needs no encouraging, the skaters did their part to incite the fans on Wednesday by playing one of the more exciting games of their teams' respective seasons.
The Rangers out-attempted the Islanders 74-67, but neither team was able to fully impose its will on the game. Outside of a few short stretches during the first period, the Rangers never carried play at 5-on-5; similarly, the Isles largely found their legs later on, but couldn't put a second goal past Henrik Lundqvist (who continues to post otherworldly numbers in net; yes this is a recording).
"There wasn't really much [space given] by either team. It was a pretty tight game, playoff-type style," said Tavares. "It was intense. You could tell the pace was high, the intensity was there, the physicality was there.
"We wanted to feed off that and build on it."
Despite wanting to feed off that energy, the top line of Brock Nelson, Tavares, and Kyle Okposo was largely outplayed from a shot-attempt standpoint by the Rangers' second line of Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and Jesper Fast. The Isles countered, however, shutting down the Rangers' first line of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, and Mats Zuccarello with the Josh Bailey-Frans Nielsen-Anders Lee unit.
While both goalies were busy matching each other save-for-save late in the game, the crowd was reacting more strongly to each scoring chance, knowing the next one would likely decide the outcome. The battle between pro-Isles Section 229's drum-and-soccer-style-chanting and pro-Rangers Section 214's guy-with-a-cowbell went on all game, escalating right up until the final whistle in regulation. (Both sides were too nervous to go on in overtime, it seems.)
"There was a large contingent of Ranger fans here as well which makes for a really good atmosphere," said Cal Clutterbuck, who finished the game with seven hits. "[Rangers-Islanders] is by far the most hostile environment you'll find at an NHL game. It's fun to be a part of it."
Even with Clutterbuck, Matt Martin (nine hits, a game-high), and Casey Cizikas (5) checking everyone in sight, and noted tough guys Tanner Glass and Dylan McIlrath in the lineup for the Rangers, the action only bordered on uncivil, without anyone willing to drop the gloves and push it into face-punching territory.
The fact that the game never got out of hand from a score standpoint likely contributed to the players being able to keep their emotions in check; the fact that such a tightly contested game ended in a shootout instead of a tie (remember ties?) is the unfortunate reality of today's NHL.
One thing that hasn't changed since the days when games could end without a winner is the passion brought to the rink by fans on both sides of the rivalry, a passion that a national TV audience was reintroduced to via NBCSN this week, and will (hopefully) be hammered over the head with going forward as both teams continue to play exciting games against one another in the same city.