Theirs is a rivalry born 42 years ago, when the Islanders, an expansion team, trespassed on and took up residence in what was then the Rangers' suburban backyard, playground and practice home. It grew when the Islanders did the unthinkable with a playoff upset in 1975, and it intensified to unimaginable heights in the decade that followed as the Islanders won four Stanley Cups while the Rangers endured taunts of "1940!" -- the year of their last championship before they returned to NHL glory in 1994.
On Sunday, the fans danced and sang, took in the unusual spectacle of hockey being played in a ballpark and tried not to get frostbite while watching the Rangers' 7-3 victory. On Wednesday, though, despite it being three degrees colder at game time -- 22 -- than it was at the start of Sunday's game, the 50,027 fans in the house clearly were there for the hockey, glued to the action from the first drop of the puck, made evident by the frequent and loud dueling chants of "Let's go, Rangers!" and "Let's go, Islanders!" that continued until the end of the Rangers' 2-1 win.
This was Rangers-Islanders, not unlike Yankees-Red Sox, and the fans love it when their team beats the other. If you were in a New York-area sports bar in 1984 when a decisive playoff game between the two went into overtime -- the Islanders won it on a goal by Ken Morrow that kept alive their Drive For Five -- you thought the roof might explode when the game-winner went in the net. Kind of like how the old Yankee Stadium was when Aaron Boone homered off Tim Wakefield in 2003. A Rangers-Islanders game is serious business.
So it was much more of a Yankee Stadium kind of event, as New Yorkers have been taking seriously their most favorite sport, baseball, at the junction of 161st Street and River Avenue for more than 90 years. Consider that they booed near the end of the first period when the public-address announcer reminded them that Grammy Award winner CeeLo Green would perform during the first intermission. They were not there for the peripheral entertainment. They were there for the hockey.
The game they witnessed was not the loose, defensively challenged type that was played three days prior, but a fairly even contest in which a puck didn't find its way into a net until the teams exchanged goals 40 seconds apart just before the second intermission.
That made the crowd even more focused on the hockey in the third period, when the Rangers took the lead on Daniel Carcillo's goal at the 4:36 mark, on a rebound in front as the Islanders collapsed in front of their goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov.
"It was spectacular," Islanders captain John Tavares said, working through the disappointment of seeing his team's winless streak grow to four games, at a time when it is desperate to earn points and get into the playoff race. "Hearing the chants go back and forth like they always do, it was a lot of fun."
When Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and his teammates denied the Islanders on three tries in front almost halfway through the third period, Rangers fans could be heard loud and clear. And they roared when Kyle Okposo's shot right in front in the closing seconds was deflected wide of the net, sealing the Rangers' victory. It was a well-earned and important win for the Rangers, who took charge of the game in the final 20 minutes, and it left them undefeated in the Bronx.
"I thought it was a great game, a lot of fun to play," said Lundqvist, who again wore pinstriped equipment and a mask featuring the likenesses of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and improved his outdoor record to 3-0. "In a few years, you'll be able to look back at it with a smile on your face."
The Islanders have something in common with the Bronx Bombers that the Rangers do not. There are four teams in North America that have won four or more consecutive major sports titles, and the Islanders and Yankees are two of them. The others are the NBA's Boston Celtics and the NHL's Montreal Canadiens. So it was fitting, in a way, that the Islanders, as the designated home team, were assigned to the Yankees' impressive dressing room.
"I loved every second of it," Nabokov said.
"It was a great experience," said Islanders coach Jack Capuano. "Obviously you don't want to be on this side of it, but the show they put on was pretty amazing. We were fortunate to be in on it."