It's been an interesting 20 years for what is the Battle of New York.
Over the past two decades, they have featured in the same NHL Playoffs on only three occasions. And of those three occasions, the two teams have only met each other once, in 1994, when the Rangers dismissed the Islanders in four games in the first round, en route to their first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years.
The reason these two teams have sparingly participated in the same postseason tournament is because for the past 20 or so years, the two organizations have constantly been on different pages.
After their first round matchup in 1994, the Islanders went on to miss the playoffs for the next seven seasons. The Rangers were able to keep most major pieces from their Cup run and made the playoffs for the next three seasons; they even made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1996-97 with Wayne Gretzky on board.
But from 1997-98 to 2000-01, both teams were among the league's bottom feeders.
2001-02 saw the arrival of Peter Laviolette, Michael Peca and Alexei Yashin on Long Island, and what ensued were three years of playoff hockey for the Islanders. Though each year resulted in a loss in the first round, their series against the Toronto in 2001-02 is widely considered one of the most exciting playoff series since the turn of the century.
While the Islanders were solidifying themselves as a difficult team to play against in the early 2000's, the Rangers were in the thick of a seven season playoff absence, highlighted by the failures of overpaid, aging stars such as Eric Lindros and Bobby Holik. They wouldn't make the playoffs until the lockout was over, in 2005-06.
The Islanders missed in the initial post-lockout season, but 2006-07 saw both teams in the same playoffs since that 1994 series. Under head coach Ted Nolan, the Islanders snuck in as the eight seed and lost in the first round to the top-seeded Buffalo Sabres, who the Rangers would eventually lose to in the second round after sweeping the Atlanta Thrashers in the three-six matchup in the first round.
Since then the Islanders have missed every season and entered a strict rebuild, while the Rangers have made the playoffs every season but one; mostly due in part by their quick, yet successful rebuild.
The beauty of all this is that the Rangers and Islanders are still each other's biggest rival, despite the fact that when one is up in the standings, the other seems to be down and vice versa.
In a league in which playoff matchups usually define two teams' rivalry, to have the Rangers and Islanders fans and players at each other's throats on a yearly basis is really something special, and may run paralleled with only the Montreal/Boston and Calgary/Edmonton rivalries in that sense.
In the late 90's and early 00's, the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings had the rivalry. Both teams, despite not being in the same division or regional proximity, were able to brew up one of the most intense rivalries the league has ever seen.
But the departure of many players on both sides, the lack of playoff meetings and the fluctuation of Coloardo's position in the standings have all effectively boiled the match down to just another game for both squads.
It couldn't be more different in New York.
Since the Islanders' inaugural NHL season in 1972-73, there's always been this big brother-little brother dynamic between them and the Rangers, who played their first NHL season in 1926-27.
What really set things off were the Islanders' four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1979-83. At ten years old the Islanders were the Kings of New York, and even more so because they defeated the Rangers en route to three of their titles.
Talk about bragging rights.
The Islanders had accomplished more in ten seasons than the Rangers did in 55. The added pressure of a 40-plus year cup drought for the Rangers had Islanders' fans feeling even better about themselves, while Rangers' fans, who were the big brothers after all, grew sour.
All this animosity, plus the two teams' proximity to one another, and you've got yourself one of the best rivalries in team sports.
The big brother-little brother complex and the bragging rights that come with each victory against the other has allowed this rivalry to sustain a high level of hostility even if both teams, or just even just one of them, are playing poorly.
That's because the last thing either fan-base wants is to serenaded by the other while exiting the Nassau Coliseum, which is a war zone when the Rangers come to town.
It doesn't matter which players dress for which squad, the energy of the 50-50 split crowd pours onto the ice and the players feed off their energy.
Both fan bases serenade the other with trademark "Potvin Sucks" and "The Rangers Suck" chants, while rowdy heckling and goal celebrations almost always produce tussles and other heated altercations.
The modern incarnation is just more of the same. We've got the Rangers, who've emerged as an Eastern Conference powerhouse, thanks to both the development of a young core and the signing of key free agents, and the Islanders, who, despite being in the middle of an uncompromising rebuild, have collected a plethora of strong young talent and established themselves as a formidable opponent for any team on any given night.
The teams are also separated by only a couple of points and will no doubt be in engulfed in the Eastern Conference's battle royale for the remaining few playoffs spots as the season draws to its end in April.
This rivalry, in all of its glory will be on display Thursday night (7:00 PM EST, MSG, MSG Plus 2) when the Rangers travel out to Nassau County to face their not-so-little brothers.
And if you're in the New York area, and you just happened to like hockey, make sure you get out to a Rangers/Islanders game at the Coliseum. It's pure hockey magic and will get you hoping and wishing that these two teams meet in the playoffs soon, because that would really be something.
And by the looks of it, that may not be far off.
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