All sports have particular rivalries, creating extra interest and excitement when such opponents meet. The case can be made that no rivalry has more agitation and a checkered history than that between the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders. Form the start, the choice in 1971 of the NHL to expand to Long Island was met with great dismay among the fans of the long-established “original six” Rangers. They represented the city, the urban, urbaneness of being a citizen of the greatest city in the world. The Islanders were set to play in Uniondale, representatives of those who rejected the city life for a suburban one, filled with malls and highways. Why should they get a team? This will get confusing when the Islanders move to Brooklyn in 2015. The NHL was attempting to forestall the now defunct WHA expansion into the New York Metropolitan area and this was their strategy. The Ranger fan base was so large, among the largest in the league, that there were plenty of fans available for an upstart. Upon paying off the Rangers $4 million to locate nearby, the Islanders joined the NHL. The fear from the Ranger fans was that they would actually draw significant numbers of fans and more importantly, the Islanders would become competitive, providing the Rangers with more reasons to struggle in the pursuit of the holy Stanley Cup grail.
The Islanders were awful at first; as is the case with most new teams. It did not take long however, for the first significant shot fired across the Rangers bow: the overtime loss in the first round of the 1975 playoffs with J.P. Parise’s (Zach’s dad) goal 11 seconds into the extra session. The series were then 2 out of 3 providing an easier path to an upset. I had barely gotten back to my last row seat from playing kick hockey in the hallways of MSG, when the terror struck. The Islanders were now a team that could beat us.
The 1970s concluded with the Ranger Empire striking back, in 1979, with the stellar play of John Davidson in net, Phil Esposito up front, and our own commentator Ron Duguay providing speed. The now underdog Rangers eliminated the Islanders in the semi-finals in 6, only to fall to the Montreal Canadians in the finals. The story goes that this was mainly because the Rangers were without one of their top point producers, center Ulf Nilsson. He was felled by a hit from Denis Potvin, the Islander central defender, breaking the Rangers’ superstar’s ankle. Ulf was good for more than a point a game. As we know, the cheer that emerges at least once a game in the MSG stands today “Potvin sucks!” started with this incident.
That the Islanders went on to win 4 cups in a row in the 1980s ( I can barely put these words to screen) sealed the hatred forever more as Islander fans could now develop a now defunct chant of their own, “1940,” the last year the Rangers won the cup until the glorious triumph of 1994. The Islanders were routed by the Rangers in 4 straight en route. Since then, the Rangers have largely been the more competitive team and looking at the standings today provides comfort when the Rangers are in second place and the Islanders are dead last. The play over the years has been mostly even though. The Rangers have a few more regular season wins, and the Islanders have a tiny edge in playoff victories between the 2 teams. All of that has no bearing because on any given day, regardless of the standings, the bitterness of the rivalry rears its head, and even for those who don’t know about the history, it still is a call to arms, urban vs. suburban, traditional vs. upstart, the heart of New York vs. the periphery. The players and fans bring out their best and their greatest passions when these 2 teams face-off. What could be a better sports scenario than that? The final contest of this season between these 2 teams is this Friday night. The Islanders have taken 2 at the Garden already. Do you think passions will be high?