On Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports is renewed as the Islanders visit the Rangers for the first of eight contests in the 2005-06 regular season. On Thursday they'll face each other at Nassau Coliseum, then back to the Garden again on Oct. 27. We get three Islanders vs. Rangers games in a nine-day span to really get the juices flowing very early in the season. Following a sweep of the season series by the Rangers in 03-04, the Islanders look primed to exact some revenge from their crosstown rivals in the new season. The teams met twice in the preseason, with the Isles winning big at the Coliseum and taking a shootout victory at MSG.
Baseball fanatics can talk all they want about how great the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry is, but I'll take Islanders-Rangers over Yanks-Sox every time. To me, a rivalry builds over repeated regular season meetings, then peaks when those two teams meet in the postseason with everything on the line. Prior to the 2004 ALCS, just when was the last time the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a playoff series? Never. The Yanks beat the Sox in the 1999 and 2003 playoffs, but the teams had never squared off prior in the postseason in all the time they had battled one another through 98 years of regular season after regular season. So where exactly was the rivalry in that?
Meanwhile, the Islanders and Rangers have clashed eight times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Isles winning five of those series and the Blueshirts advancing three times. With the lone exception of the Rangers' five-game victory over the Islanders in the 1990 playoffs, every other series victory by both teams was either a crushing blow to the opposition or a major stepping-stone for the victor.
Wasn't it fitting that the Islanders' first-ever playoff game was a 3-2 win against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on April 8, 1975? Two nights later, as a 13-year old, I attended the Islanders' first home playoff game in franchise history, and the atmosphere inside and outside Nassau Coliseum was absolutely electric. I sat in the last row of section 224, with an overflow crowd standing five rows deep behind me all night, as the Rangers crushed the Islanders 8-3. I was hooked for life after that night, and the series was headed back to the Garden for a deciding Game 3. J.P. Parise's overtime goal just 11 seconds into the extra session eliminated the Rangers, stunned the hockey world, and officially announced that the three-year old New York Islanders had arrived in a big way. The Isles and the rivalry against the Rangers were now both squarely on the map.
The Rangers returned the favor in the 1979 playoffs, eliminating an Islanders team that led the NHL in points in the regular season. The image of Denis Potvin slumped against the bench at the stunning conclusion of Game 6 was a sight never to be forgotten by Islander and Ranger fans alike. Potvin and the Isles would have a much happier ending to their season over the next four years.
In the Islanders' Stanley Cup run from 1980-1983, three times they had to go through the Rangers on their way to hoisting Lord Stanley's chalice. When they began the defense of their fourth Cup in the 1984 playoffs, it was the Rangers who were just a goal away from ending the Islanders' dynasty. The opening round Game 5 overtime thriller was instead decided by Ken Morrow's overtime tally, beating goaltender Glen Hanlon and the Rangers for the fourth straight year in the playoffs.
When the Rangers won their Stanley Cup in 1994, they swept the Islanders in the opening round of the playoffs, outscoring them 22-3 in the four-game series. The hockey world took notice, and the Blueshirts were on their way to postseason glory for the first time in 54 years.
So as you gear up for the home-and-home series this Wednesday and Thursday nights, remember just how incredible every postseason meeting between these two great opponents was, and how it raised the bar on the rivalry a little higher with each successive playoff showdown. And allow yourself to dream of how great it will be again not only this week, with lots of new heroes and villains, but in the next inevitable postseason chapter of this storied battle of New York.