The End of an Era for Rangers-Islanders

New York Rangers at New York Islanders

This is it. The last Rangers-Islanders game ever at Nassau Coliseum. Well, that is unless we get a Rangers-Islanders playoff series this spring. But for now, this is the last time we will see the two rivals play on Long Island before the Islanders move at the end of the season.

With the Rangers and Islanders battling for first place in the Met and meeting for the fifth and final time this season, I did an email exchange with Dominik Jansky of Lighthouse Hockey to talk about the rivalry, what it’s like to have the Islanders relevant again, if Islanders fans want to see the Rangers in the playoffs and the sentimentality of the closing of the Nassau Coliseum.

Keefe: To anyone I know who is a real Islanders fan and didn’t just come out of the woodwork to rejoin rooting for a good team this season, I have compared being an Islanders fan to being a fan of a band that plays at bars and clubs and then all of a sudden they are playing arenas and stadiums and liking them is the cool thing to do. It seems like every hockey fan not already rooting for the Rangers is on the “I hope the Islanders win if my team doesn’t” bandwagon this season. And while I’m happy to have the New York hockey rivalry back, I’m not rooting for the Islanders if the Rangers are eliminated.

But what’s it like to have the Islanders back as a Cup contender after two decades of mediocre and bad hockey? Does it feel good to have attention on the Islanders once again?

Jansky: Of course it’s fantastic and long overdue to have the Islanders as contenders again. There is something poetic about it coinciding with the final season of the Coliseum, too, and to have the reassurance that they will hit the ground running in Brooklyn.

The “out of the woodwork” thing hasn’t been too much of an issue. One thing you find with a team that was so historically dominant during a certain era is there are a lot of fans who were kids or teenagers then who are absolutely loving the chance to relive even a taste of that success through the current team with their offspring.

Keefe: Two years ago when the Islanders nearly pulled off the upset of the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs before losing in six games, it was a glimpse into the future of the Islanders. Then injuries derailed last season and now we’re finally getting to see what took so long to build on Long Island.

Two years ago, you got the first playoff appearance since 2006-07, but the team still hasn’t won a playoff series since 1992-93 with six first-round exits since then.

What would you consider to be a successful season for the Islanders this season? Is it winning a series? Winning two? Reaching the Eastern Conference finals? Or are expectations even higher than that after their success in the regular season?

Jansky: Well, it’s already been a success based on the first three-quarters. Though it’s common for fans to write off the regular season, the fact is it consumes most of the season and, in some ways, is a bigger test than two months of playoffs.

Certainly winning a series would be nice, in terms of wiping that “not since 1992-93” factoid off the narrative, but they should do much more than that. They have as good a chance as any team in the East of becoming this year’s version of the sacrificial lamb offered at the altar of the West. However it plays out, they need to send the Coliseum off in style.

Keefe: Jaroslav Halak has been a major upgrade over Islanders goalies in recent years and will give them a better chance to win in the playoffs than they have had in some time. I have never been the biggest Halak fan and have never been worried when the Rangers have played them even though he has done a nice job against them this season outside of the Feb. 16 game.

Do you believe in Halak and are you worried about him for the playoffs?

Jansky: Halak has had his tougher moments, but his strength is in his steady calm amid the storm. He shakes off bad goals, he shakes off good goals, his movements are predictable and reassuring for the defense.

Considering Halak’s largest playoff sample was the year he carried the Habs over better opponents, I’m not worried about any of the traditional playoff narratives in his case.

Keefe: It’s the end of a chapter in the storied rivalry as Tuesday night will be the last time the Rangers and Islanders ever play at the Nassau Coliseum. Well, unless we get a playoff series between the two teams.

For a while I was against the Rangers and Islanders meeting in the playoffs, and it wasn’t because the Islanders beat up on the Rangers in their first three meetings this year. I said I didn’t want a Rangers-Islanders playoff series because from a Rangers fan standpoint, nothing good can come from it. If the Rangers win, they’re the Rangers and they’re supposed to win. And if the Islanders win, it’s basically the worst thing imaginable. It’s the same feeling I have about Yankees-Red Sox playoff series. If the Yankees win, they’re the Yankees and they’re supposed to win. And if they lose, well, it’s the worst thing imaginable. The aftermath of a series loss far outweighs the satisfaction of a series win, unless that series win eventually leads to a championship.

There’s nothing for the Rangers and Rangers fans to gain by playing the Islanders in the playoffs. Sure, it would be great for New York hockey and for the mainstream media around here to pretend like they care about hockey and it would be good fuel to rekindling the fire of a once-strong rivalry. But if the Rangers don’t win, it’s a disaster.

But after the last game between the teams on Feb. 16, which should be used a commercial for the NHL, I’m all for the teams meeting in April or May. Give me more Rangers-Islanders this season. Don’t make Tuesday’s game at the Coliseum the last between them.

Are you for or against a playoff series between them?

Jansky: I think what you’re describing is the fear that accompanies any rivalry: the bounty is incomparably sweet if your team prevails, but on some level you’d rather not risk the encounter if the flip-side is humiliation at the hands of your rivals and friends on the other side.

It’s not so much that the Rangers are “supposed” to win any more than they were “supposed” to beat the Capitals or Flyers or Penguins in years past, it’s that they haven’t faced that test in ages because the Isles haven’t been good enough to force them to.

I’d love for it to happen because of the great theater, even though it would be of the potentially torturous variety. Ultimately I know that, just like with the Penguins in 2013, even if it ends in a loss, history still favors the Islanders unparalleled accomplishments.

Keefe: With Tuesday’s game being the last Rangers-Islanders game at the Coliseum for now, has the sentimentality of the Coliseum closing start to set in? The Islanders only have nine home regular-season games left and then they’re only guaranteed two home playoff games as of now. So we’re looking at the real possibility of only nine more hockey games on Long Island.

Has it hit you yet that this is the end? What are your feelings on the move to Brooklyn?

Jansky: There was high sentimentality about the Coliseum in the preseason and opening months, but I feel like it’s taken somewhat of a backseat to marveling at just how good and consistent the Islanders have been this season. They were expected to improve and make the playoffs, maybe even contend for home ice in the first round. But to be in the division title conversation all season long, to avoid prolonged bad spells to this point, that has surprised even the biggest optimists and somewhat distracted from the Coliseum story. Now that we are in the stretch run, it is definitely on the mind though.

As for Brooklyn, it’s clear the political situation was too infested with incompetence to allow the Islanders to stay in Nassau, and Charles Wang certainly served his time trying to find a way. So with that ship sailed, I’m looking forward to the advantages Brooklyn will provide. It will be different, but also intriguing. As any fan who has watched both 19 playoff series victories in a row and a series drought of over 20 years knows, conditions change, nothing in sports last forever.