Whenever two teams play the same sport in the same region, a rivalry is only natural. That’s the case for the NHL’s two New York teams: the Islanders and Rangers. Much like the Mets and Yankees or the Jets and Giants, the Islanders and Rangers have been locked in a battle for New York’s soul for years. While the Rangers are the most popular team in the city, it doesn’t make this rivalry any less intense.
This year, the rivalry is hotter than ever thanks to the NHL’s new scheduling format. Let’s look at the rivalry’s history and why it’s likely to reach a fever pitch this season.
The history of the Islanders and Rangers in New York
Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey (second from right) fights with Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck in 1980 | Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios
The Rangers were founded in 1926. According to the NHL, prior to the Rangers taking the ice in Madison Square Garden, a club called the New York Americans was the city’s team. As the Rangers’ popularity increased, the Americans saw themselves losing fans. They moved to Brooklyn before later folding as a club.
The Islanders have a much shorter history. Britannica reports they were founded in 1972. They played for their first 42 seasons in Uniondale, New York, on Long Island. For a brief spell, the team moved to Brooklyn to play in the Barclays Center before moving out of the city.
The Islanders-Rangers rivalry
While the Rangers have generally been more popular and regarded as New York’s team, the Islanders did advance to five straight Stanley Cups in the ’80s, winning four. The Rangers are the last team among the two to win a title, however, winning the Stanley Cup in 1994.
One incident that shows just how intense the rivalry is? In 2003, ESPN reported the Islanders invited any fan dressing as Santa Claus to get into the game for free and could walk on the ice between periods. Two of the fans dressed as Santa took to the ice to reveal they were wearing Rangers’ jerseys under their red suits. They were later jumped by Islander fans.
The two franchises have never seemed to sync up in terms of when they were at their best. The Rangers went on quite a Stanley Cup drought while the Islanders were at their peak. Likewise, when the Rangers returned to form in the 90s, the Islanders slid back into obscurity. One thing’s for sure this season, however: The rivalry is about to get a much-needed boost.
Why the Islanders-Rangers rivalry is stronger than ever in 2021
COVID-19 has forced all the pro sports leagues to adopt many changes on the fly. The NFL season saw games getting postponed for weeknight start times. The NBA finished last season in a bubble. And MLB had teams play other teams geographically closest to them, playing their own division members as well as the corresponding division in the other league.
The NHL has adopted a similar approach. According to the NHL, the 2020-21 season will focus on divisional realignment and intradivision schedules. This will cut down on team travel. It will also help to ignite some old rivalries like Islanders-Rangers, who will play more season than they have in previous seasons. Vegas Golden Knights head coach Peter DeBoer lauded the new setup:
“There’s a reason the NHL plays their playoffs within the division, it’s to create those rivalries and that hatred, and we don’t get a lot of that during the regular season bumping around from city to city with absolutely no back-to-backs against the same team in the same city.”
The Islanders and Rangers will play eight times this season. That will only ratchet up tension between both squads and their fanbases, hearkening back to an earlier era. Rangers team president John Davidson even referred to this season as a “bit of a throwback.” This year, Islander/Ranger games will be about more than just New York pride. It will also be about jockeying for a playoff position.