Even as hockey leagues all over the world take a hiatus, the Last Word on Hockey team is still devoted to publishing quality content in the absence of live sports. Such begins a new series: the NHL Rivalry Breakdown.
Each article will take a look at two longtime rivals and break down how the rivalry came to be, how the teams stack up against each other currently, and how the matchup may look down the road. This next edition takes a look at one of the oldest rivalries between the New York Rangers, and New York Islanders.
NHL Rivalry: New York Rangers and New York Islanders
The Hudson River Rivalry, which is the rivalry between New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils is more established in history. The “Battle of New York” has intensified in recent years.
The iconic New York Rangers was founded in 1926 and was part of the “original six”. They won their first Stanley Cup in 1928 and in-turn achieved the honor of being the first U.S based team to win. Although the Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Finals five times and won twice, in 1933 and 1940, the franchise went into a steady decline for decades.
Looking back at history, since the New York Islanders franchise was established in 1972 and this NHL rivalry began, this time period was particularly one-sided in favor of the “little brother” of the two.
Moments In History
The battle of New York cannot be discussed without some key moments in NHL rivalry history.
Notably, in February 1979, Islanders defencemen Denis Potvin checked Rangers forward Ulf Nilsson into the boards causing Nilsson’s skate to get caught in a rut in the ice. The result was a broken ankle that sidelined Nilsson for months. This began the origin of the “Potvin sucks” chant that is still used today, 40 years later. But the Rangers had revenge and went on to defeat the Islanders that year in the semifinals. So a bitter pill for both sides.
The Brooklyn team had Stanley Cup success back-to-back between the 1979-83 seasons. The NHL rivalry continued between the two teams as while on the road to those Stanley Cup successes the Islanders knocked out the Rangers in the semifinals of the 1980-81 season and Division finals between 1981-83.
This NHL Rivalry continued to intensify as evidenced by a scrappy Game 5 of the 1984 Pattrick Division semifinal where the Rangers goaltender Dan Cloutier destroyed the Islanders Tommy Salo and continued to challenge the entire Islanders bench. None answered the call.
The Islanders continued to dominate up until the Rangers dream team of 1994 and the momentum shifted causing the Blueshirts to sweep the Islanders in the first round. Until recently, the Rangers have continued this domination.
In 2001, this unique NHL rivalry produced the Pat LaFontaine Trophy where the winner of the regular-season series between the two franchises is awarded the trophy and the loser donates $50,000 to charity. It still exists today.
Both teams have gone through monumental changes in the last few seasons and is the main reason why this NHL Rivalry is more relevant in today’s fan base. Particularly with the increasing decline of the Devils.
An Emotional But Necessary Rebuild
With the removal of Alain Vigneault, the Rangers said goodbye to favourites such as Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, and Kevin Hayes. So embarked into a new era of Blueshirt hockey. The majority of the team roster is now under the age of 21-years-old. Therefore, that injects energy and enthusiasm that the Rangers have been lacking for some time. Acquiring Kappo Kakko during the draft lottery and paying top dollar for Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin remains the catalyst.
Before the postponement of the 2019-20 season, Panarin led the Rangers with 95 points, tied for third in the league. Unofficial captain Mika Zibanejad is currently achieving a career-high with 41 goals, 34 assists equaling 75 points.
However, more importantly, the Rangers are making moves to fix previous defensive concerns by signing top defencemen Jacob Trouba and Harvard graduate Adam Fox who give stability and readability but can also bring an offensive value.
Projected lineup IF all healthy on the season’s return:
Artemi Panarin – Mika Zibanejad – Pavel Buchnevich
Phil Di Giuseppe – Brett Howden – Kaapo Kakko
Marc Staal – Anthony DeAngelo
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox
The Brooklyn Surge
Hiring former Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz straight after the Capitals Stanley Cup win was monumental timing for the Islanders. Whose efforts saw the team return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. Although the Islanders created an upset sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, they could not keep momentum and were swept themselves in the second by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Offensively the Islanders have a solid top-six, much like the Rangers with Mathew Barzal leading the team with 60 points followed by Brock Nelson with 54. The team has slumped considerably the last few months before the season postponement.
Defensively, the islanders are stronger, with a 2.79 goals against/games played average (9th). Where the Rangers are 2.79 GA/GP (23rd). Along with a lesser shots-per-game total of 31.2. However, the Islanders had defensive injuries prior to the season stoppage. They are also clinically more disciplined than the young boisterous Rangers team at 575 penalty minutes to the Rangers 781.
Here is what the Islanders lineup can look like when the season begins again:
The season postponement could not have come at a worse time for these two NHL rivals. As stated, the Islanders were on track sitting third in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division but have slumped in recent months. Although all is not lost and the Islanders can still make a wild card spot.
As the opposite, the Rangers have defied expectations, steamrolling to success late in games. And beating the Islanders in the regulation season series 2-1 while making a valued push for a wild card spot. The New York rivalry will reach new heights as both teams are competing for that coveted wild card slot at present. It will be too close at this point to call.
Although unlikely, the Rangers will progress far into the playoffs if they achieve a spot. It is the experience for the younger players that is most valuable to the front office. This will make the Rangers a genuine contender in the next few years. However, it will be interesting to see how they deal with their goalie situation. Will they give King Henrik Lundqvist the recognition and respect he deserves? Or, will the above-average Igor Shesrekin take the reigns?
If the Islanders achieve a wild card placement, they will aim to settle old scores? The team has the talent and have caused upsets already.