Maybe it’s a function of my age, or just the part of the franchise’s timeline at which I became a fan. But to me, the real hallmark of the Islanders-Rangers rivalry isn’t the playoff battles or the Stanley Cup wins or “1940” or “Potvin Sucks.”
In my mind, the thing that will always stick out about these games are the battles they’ve had against each other during lost seasons. Even when one or both were among the NHL’s very worst teams, you could always count on a Rangers-Islanders game being different. The passes were always a little crisper, the hits always harder, the celebrations a little more in-your-face and the intensity turned up many, many notches.
Lost seasons for the Islanders have been well-chronicled here and elsewhere. No matter how bad they were or who was or wasn’t on the roster, they always came after the Rangers like it was the last game they were ever going to play. And during that long stretch of the late-90’s and early-2000’s where the Rangers were both hilariously awful and even more hilariously expensive, they seemed to relish the chance to needle a pretty good Islanders team just to remind them who they are. The Rangers have been much better since that time, and the Islanders sorta okay. But standings don’t matter for those four or five games a season.
The reason for my nostalgia is the NHL Network, video posted up top that reminisces about the New York hockey rivalry as part of the channel’s Top 10 NHL Rivalries countdown. Islanders-Rangers came in sixth, which is fine, I guess. Personally, I’d put it ahead of Penguins-Flyers but it doesn’t really matter.
NHL Network’s Top 10 Rivalries of All-Time:
- Canadiens vs Bruins
- Canadiens vs Maple Leafs
- Flames vs Oilers
- Penguins vs Flyers
- Blackhawks vs Red Wings
- Rangers vs Islanders
- Avalanche vs Red Wings
- Penguins vs Capitals
- Oilers vs Jets
- Rangers vs Devils
Some of these go back to the 1930’s. Oilers-Jets references Winnipeg 1.0 and a team that was actually pretty good... and got its ass handed to it by Edmonton for, like, eight years. And if you were a hockey fan in the 1990’s, Avalanche-Red Wings was appointment television each and every time.
The Islanders-Rangers video has quick sound bites and interviews with, among others, Stan Fischler, Kenny Albert, Mike Richter and Bryan Trottier. All saw or played in the blood wars fought almost continuously since the Islanders entered the NHL in 1972 and have intense memories of those times.
(Side Note: Man, fans were already dogging the Islanders for being shitty losers in year one? That’s rough. I’d say that’s why we can’t have nice things, but I know that nice things would happen eventually.)
The Islanders dynasty is covered in the middle and it ends with the exorcism of the “1940” chant thanks to the Rangers 1994 Stanley Cup victory. The look on Adam Graves’ face when he knows he won’t have to hear it again makes him look like he just got released from death row. It really puts a human face on the visceral, familial, ingrained hatred these teams - and, more importantly, their fans - have had for so long.
The hate is as strong today as it ever was, even though the teams haven’t met in the playoffs since that season (and sure as hell won’t this year, either). I’m not sure my anxiety would let me handle an Islanders-Rangers playoff series when I could barely make it through the five minute video without all those old feelings coming up like acid reflux.