Tuesday night's schedule featured a pair of games within the New York city limits, with both the New York Rangers and New York Islanders playing host. The results were mixed, featuring a win and a loss for the home teams. This was good news, and we'll get to that in a minute.
At Madison Square Garden, the Rangers snapped the Edmonton Oilers' six-game win streak, taking the lead on a Rick Nash goal late in the second. Then they held on through the third and iced the win with an empty netter in the final minute. The victory avenged last week's shootout loss in Edmonton.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, New York, the Islanders were losing 5-1 to the Florida Panthers. The result wasn't necessarily surprising -- the Isles were at the end of the dreaded three-games-in-four-nights stretch -- but still had to feel like a missed opportunity to gain ground on the idle Washington Capitals. The loss snapped a three-game Islanders win streak and allowed the Rangers to leapfrog into second place in the Metro.
In other words, if you're a hockey fan, the night went just about perfectly. Stay with me Islanders fans because you know I've always had your back.
Here's the deal: We want the Islanders and Rangers to spend the rest of the season fighting back and forth for second and third place in the Metro. No, scratch that: We need that to happen. There's no room here for either team to get red hot and surge into first, nor can either slump badly and plummet to fourth. No, they need to keep doing what they did Tuesday night: play a nice game of leapfrog with second and third spots, and leave the rest of the division alone.
Why? Because that's how we get the best first-round playoff matchup the league could possibly offer. And whether you root for the Islanders, Rangers or someone else, that matchup should be at the very top of your must-have list for the rest of the season. And we're headed there, as long as nobody screws up.
The Islanders and Rangers haven't met in the playoffs in more than two decades; their past two meetings were in 1990 and 1994, when the Rangers won both series quickly. The last Islanders' series win against the Rangers came all the way back in 1984, when the team was in the midst of its astounding streak of 19 straight series wins, a North American pro sports record that still stands and probably always will. Four of those series wins came against the Rangers, as did their last loss before it began.
While all that was going on, the two teams formed a rivalry that would become one of the best the NHL has ever seen. In the early years, it was based on simple geography, but it quickly morphed into one fueled by a healthy dose of bad blood. (Thanks, Denis). The Islanders were the league's bully back in those days, kicking scoreboard sand in the face of the Rangers and everyone else. A decade later it was the Rangers who'd kick some right back, on their way to ending their championship drought.
That rivalry has been largely dormant for a generation; even the regular-season matchups have featured only the occasional spark of what used to be a full-on bonfire of hatred. Still, it's impossible to look at the current standings and not have visions of the two teams colliding in the first round in April. And that goes beyond the typical "if the playoffs started today" routine, which we all agreed last week was pointless (and then went ahead and did anyway).
Today, the Capitals sit atop the Metro, just two points up on the Rangers (42) and three on the Islanders (41), but holding three games in hand on both. The Caps are probably the conference's best team and it wouldn't be a shock to see them pull away from the pack in the coming weeks once the schedule-maker remembers to start giving them occasional games.
Meanwhile, the rest of the division sits well back of the New York teams. The New Jersey Devils are five points behind in fourth, but nobody really believes they can keep this up all season. The Pittsburgh Penguins, in fifth, are eight back, and they're a mess. And the Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets are already far enough behind that it would take an enormously unlikely push just to get close.
That leaves the Rangers and Islanders to fight it out for second and third place. And, of course, those second and third spots would guarantee them a playoff meeting. Let the rest of the Eastern Conference shake out however it wants, with wild cards coming from either division and the league's weird crossover system kicking in if it needs to. It won't matter. If the Rangers and Islanders finish second and third, the matchup is sealed.
It can happen. It's right there. All we need is for these two teams to keep winning enough to stay ahead of the Metro's also-rans, but not so much that they catch the Capitals. Tuesday night, at least, everything went according to script.
Keep it up, boys, and it will be April before we know it. And then, oh, man, it is on.