By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
If it’s a playoff atmosphere you want, rest assured, you’re going to get it and then some at the old barn off the Hempstead Turnpike soon enough.
You have to go back to the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs to find the last time there was serious buzz in the rivalry between the Islanders and Rangers. It’s been a while since they played a meaningful game with the type of intensity you are certain to see when these teams strap on the gear Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum.
As we all know, the Rangers swept the Isles back in ’94 on their way to their first championship in 54 years. But since those days of Mark Messier, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, among others, wiping away the last remaining vestiges of the great Islanders team of the previous season, when they shocked the two-time Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the then-Patrick Division finals, we haven’t received all that many signature moments from these two.
Sure, the hatred the Islanders and Rangers have for each other has lived on and they always play their usual regular season series filled with angst and treachery, but of late there has been just one meeting with serious playoff implications — the April 3, 2007 tilt at the coliseum that the Isles won in a shootout to keep their hopes alive. Goaltender Wade Dubielewicz saved the Isles’ bacon that night, just as he did five days later against New Jersey in a victory that put them back in the playoffs for the first time in three years.
The Rangers have had their moments recently, too, including heroics from Messier, Wayne Gretzky and even ex-Islander Mike Dunham, but most of the meetings simply have lacked the type of buzz they had in the late 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, because only one of the teams has consistently been relevant.
It goes without saying that the Rangers have clearly been the better franchise since 1994, with brief moments of getting their fans all riled up in believing they could be more, while the Islanders have been living off that upset of the Mario Lemieux- and Jaromir Jagr-led Penguins. They haven’t won a playoff series since and have qualified for the tournament just five times, including no appearances since 2007.
But this wild and wacky lockout-shortened season has turned into all that we love about both the rivalry and the NHL. The Rangers may not be what they were last season, when they got to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, but they still have the potential to make a run if they can first successfully navigate their last eight games. The Islanders, on the other hand, have been a revelation, defying all the prognosticators after years of sticking to an oft-criticized rebuilding plan that now is seeing the fruits of patience and perseverance.
And from an Islanders perspective there is a bitter irony to their 13-5-2 surge, which has included registering 17 of a possible 20 points over their last 10 games: Nassau Coliseum is again the place to be, even if its tenants won’t be there for much longer.
One has to wonder if the Isles were as good as they are now back when the new arena referendum was voted on if things might have turned out differently. If the proposal had passed it could have led to the Islanders getting $400 million in public funds to build a new arena, but it was soundly beaten that day in August a few years ago. In my opinion, a big reason for that was because the Islanders simply weren’t very good and a lot of fans lacked faith that they’d ever be good again. So, they stayed home, or didn’t approach supporting the referendum as fervently as they could have.
So maybe as early as the end of next season, if you believe the reports that surfaced this week that suggested the team is in the process of trying to get out of its lease at the coliseum a year early, the Islanders will call the Barclays Center in Brooklyn home, leaving behind a treasure trove of memories at an arena that was at one time the “it” building in all of hockey.
I’ve never had a problem with the coliseum. I know a lot of people do, but to me it’s always been a great place to actually watch a game, and that by no means refers to the quality of the team on the ice.
Yes, the coliseum is antiquated. You have to suck in your gut to squeeze by people walking in the opposite direction in the corridors. It’s not state of the art in any way. There have been reports — and lawsuits — about possible asbestos. The media area is on the moon and you have to have a guide dog to find the locker rooms, which are the size of shoe boxes.
But, at the end of the day, none of that really matters. Because when the Islanders are good that place packs a wallop.
I would not be surprised if Saturday night sounds a bit like this. The last time the coliseum rocked like it was ready to crumble from the decibels was during the 2001-02 playoff series against the Maple Leafs. The Islanders won every game on home ice before falling in Game 7 up in Toronto. But in retrospect, the outcome of that series is not important for purposes of discussing what that building can still be, given the right scenario.
Which is what we have now.
The Islanders are sitting in seventh place in the conference, two points behind Ottawa and two ahead of the Rangers. Obviously both teams need to win Saturday, but the Isles hold a bit of a hammer thanks to their surprising 2-1 win in Boston on Thursday, a victory that turned anticipation of Saturday into an interminable wait. While I’m not going to call it a “house money” game for the Isles, all a Rangers regulation win will do is even the score, and both teams have a bit of a cushion separating them from the teams below the playoff cut line.
I don’t think a loss hurts either team’s chances of making the playoffs considering how well both have played over the last two weeks. I simply cannot see either team losing and then going into the tank.
The Rangers have found something, specifically offensively, with the acquisition of rugged winger Ryane Clowe, the promotion of Mats Zuccarello and the welcoming of Derick Brassard in the trade that sent underwhelming Marian Gaborik to Columbus. The Islanders have grown up right before everyone’s eyes, largely living off kids coming into their own and key waiver pickups by general manager Garth Snow. Both teams have goaltenders that can steal series, let alone games, with the Blue Shirts’ Henrik Lundqvist quietly living up to the expectations that come with winning a Vezina Trophy, and the Isles’ Evgeni Nabokov playing his best hockey since his days with the San Jose Sharks, when he was one of the best netminders in the Western Conference.
Both teams have goal scorers, playmakers, energy players, puck-moving defensemen and have no problem throwing punches when the situation calls for them. Both teams have fan bases that wouldn’t think twice about a launching a flash mob against the other at a moment’s notice.
And both teams know what this game means to the fabric of the sports landscape in New York City and its surrounding suburbs.
It’s time to put on the foil, put relationships to the test and troll away on Twitter.
Let’s do this thing.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
Who will win and why? Let’s go. Offer your comments below …