The Return of the Rangers-Islanders Rivalry

New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders

That game was coming at some point. I just wish it hadn’t come on Tuesday night, at home, against the Islanders.

When you look at what the Rangers have done over the last five weeks, ripping off 12 wins in 13 games, by rolling through the Eastern Conference and embarrassing the Western Conference, “that game” was going to happen. You can only play so well for so long over the course of an 82-game season before it catches up with you, and the Rangers, having just come back from a three-game California road trip and having played one home game in the last 16 days, were set up to lay an egg in what had become the most hyped of their 40 games so far.

Games like Tuesday night are going to happen. If it had happened against the Penguins it wouldn’t have been a big deal. If it had happened against the Devils it would have been somewhat of a big deal. Because it happened against the Islanders, it’s a very big deal, but it’s good that it’s a very big deal. It’s good that losing to the Islanders in a mid-January game is a big deal. It’s good that Islanders fans have a reason to boast and chirp today and pretend like that last 20 years of hockey never happened.

When it comes to Islanders fans there are those that are finally showing their face after like Punxsutawney Phil on Feb. 2 after two decades of hiding and there are those that feel like their time watching missed postseasons and first round exits is now being vindicated, like someone who watched a band play in bars and clubs and now they’re touring stadiums and arenas. It’s a combination of both that will bust out the “Best Team in New York” tag over the next couple of weeks until the teams meet against on Jan. 27 even if holding that title in the regular season means as much as winning the Presidents Trophy and then not finishing the job in the playoffs. But I’m happy Islanders fans have a reason to celebrate like Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals was played last night.

Normally, Tuesday’s game would have meant nothing more than the end of the Rangers’ five-game winning streak, the continuation of the Islanders’ now three-game winning streak, no points for the Islanders and two points for the Rangers. And for the standings and playoff-seeding purposes, that’s all it does mean. But the extra stuff between the teams, the players and the fans, Tuesday’s game meant everything.

It’s exciting to have both the Rangers and Islanders be elite, top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference and potential Cup contenders at the same time. The last time you cold make the case for that was 1993-94 when I was seven years old. I like having this rivalry. I enjoy having this rivalry. But with every regular-season rivalry, whether it be Yankees-Red Sox, Yankees-Mets, Giants-Eagles or Giants-Cowboys, each game is treated like a Game 7 throughout the regular season. And because you’re presented with something resembling playoff hockey when it’s not really the playoffs, you treat the games as if they are playoff-like games and then it’s as if you’re a 15-year-old getting drunk off wine coolers because that’s the only way for you to get drunk. But during an 82-game regular season that spans over parts of seven months, you need regular-season games disguised as playoff games, and you need to have these rivalries and have Tuesday night games in January seem and feel like they are more important than a Tuesday night game in December, even if it’s the same two points on the line.

It’s the games against the Islanders and Devils and Flyers and Bruins and Penguins and Blackhawks and Kings that you look for when the schedule comes out. The only people looking for Rangers-Hurricanes and Rangers-Jets and Rangers-Panthers on the day the schedule is released are those looking to get to a game and see the Rangers at the Garden for cheap. We need games like Tuesday night. We need the Rangers and Islanders to be competitive and for their fans to hate each other. We need a reason for Game 40 to feel different than Game 27 or Game 63 and to give us a playoff atmosphere three months before the real thing. I could certainly do without the lackluster, half-hearted effort in an eventual 3-0 loss at home to the team’s current biggest rival, but I enjoyed everything surrounding the game until the puck dropped shortly after 7 p.m. I’m not enjoying the aftermath of the loss or the following day as much.

The Rangers are one game from the halfway point of the season (Columbus is the only other team will 40 games played), but following Thursday’s game in Boston, they will be done with the first half of their schedule. Right now, you can count how many times they haveĀ  had “one of those games” on one hand: Oct. 14 vs. Islanders, Nov. 1 vs. Winnipeg, Nov. 9 vs. Edmonton, Nov. 17 vs. Tampa Bay and Tuesday night against the Islanders. I don’t want to have to start counting on two hands after Thursday.