Imagine seven games of this.
Picture the Rangers and Islanders at each other’s throats in a postseason series even half as wild and entertaining as Monday night’s 6-5 Rangers comeback win at the Coliseum, a playoff meeting that would appropriately extend the life of this arena as the Isles’ home against their biggest rival before next fall’s move.
“I would imagine that was one of those games that takes a few years off a coach’s life,” the Rangers’ Chris Kreider said, pretending to pull out his hair.
Nothing against the borough, but Brooklyn can wait. Next season, the Blueshirts’ and Isles’ rivalry can split Barclays Center and the Garden the same way that the NBA’s All-Star festivities shared both glitzy arenas over the past weekend.
This season, the NHL franchises’ charge could be nothing less than rescuing New York City from its winter and spring sports lethargy created by its sorry basketball franchises – the Nets boring, dysfunctional and irrelevant; the Knicks a punch line from barroom to boardroom.
This season’s Islanders and Rangers – now just two points apart in the Metropolitan Division standings, ranked one-two – are capable of the sort of captivating drama that left Rangers defenseman Marc Staal and an observer speechless shaking their heads in unison in Monday night’s visitors’ locker room.
“I know. I feel the same way,” Staal said, before no words were spoken. “That’s not the first time that’s happened in this building.”
The rivals have one more meeting on the schedule, a 7 p.m. faceoff on March 10, but Monday’s unreal fireworks made it easy to miss the Coliseum already. The split crowd at this outdated but loveable old barn was dueling with their voices just as forcefully as their teams were competing on the ice.
No one knows if the atmosphere will be the same when the Isles’ home is surrounded by subway stops and coffee shops instead of parking lots. The action on the ice Monday, though, would have gotten any arena jumping.
Isles captain John Tavares’ goal 11 seconds in wasn’t exactly the late J.P. Parise’s Game 3 goal 11 seconds into overtime of the 1975 preliminaries, earning the Islander franchise’s first postseason series win. But it set the stage for great theatre and made fans yearn for the rivals’ first playoff meeting since 1994 and their ninth all-time – a series the Isles lead, 5-3.
Isles forwards Ryan Strome (two goals) and Frans Nielsen (goal, assist) were flying. Fortunately, the Henrik Lundqvist-less Rangers (34-16-5, 73 points) found their leader in none other than their captain.
Ryan McDonagh, who has been inconsistent all season, scored a career-high two goals, including a slapper to draw the Blueshirts within 2-1 at 14:35 of a first period in which the Rangers were outshot, 22-11, and should have trailed by much more.
“He stepped up and scored that big goal, and you could see him get bigger,” Staal said. “His confidence was up. He was all over the ice making plays. It’s a great time for your captain to come up big for you there, and everyone followed in behind.”
McDonagh told reporters it was great how the Rangers “stuck together.” Kreider, meanwhile, was nothing short of an unstoppable force as his team improved to 5-1-1 with Cam Talbot (38 saves) in Lundqvist’s place.
The Boston College product scored on a blazing wrister at 3:07 of the second period to draw within 3-2. Then, when trailing 5-3 after Strome’s second at 3:43 of the third off a Dan Boyle giveaway, Kreider used his speed to set up Derek Stepan and galvanize an improbable rush of three unanswered goals that included Martin St. Louis’ first tally in 16 games and Kevin Klein’s game-winner at 15:28.
“Since (the NHL All-Star) break, Kreids has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Stepan (goal, two assists).
Both teams’ blemishes were exposed: The Rangers’ poor starts, shoddy puck management and lack of defensive depth; the Islanders’ tendency to get into track meets and goalie Jaroslav Halak’s vulnerability.
The officials also were taken to task for failing to whistle Kreider for a trip on Johnny Boychuk prior to St. Louis’ goal, though the puck appeared to be bouncing in the Isles defenseman’s skates.
All in all, though, this is the kind of hockey – the kind of sporting event – that people want to watch.
“There was a lot of emotion in the building,” St. Louis said. “I’m new to this rivalry, but this is a fun one. I think the fans were spoiled tonight with a lot of good plays from both sides in a really exciting game.”
New York sports fans spoiled?
Sure, Nets and Knicks fans will believe it when they see it – or when they’re scrambling at will call in April for tickets to the rink.
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