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NHL Center Ice Watch, Vol. 5: Long Live Great Derbies

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Welcome to Next Impulse’s ‘NHL Center Ice Watch’ where we highlight certain NHL games that should have your curiosity for a variety of reasons. These won’t be the obvious games that Pierre McGuire works or a game featuring boring storylines like the Bruins. These are games we’ve sought out for real hockey nerds. The ones who dig deep for storylines . You can find our first post here. And hey look at this! you can find the second, third, and fourth volumes here , here, and here

Over there they call them derbies. Here we call them rivalries. Either way, they are fun.

They are sporting events that feature two teams from the same area that don’t get along.

In Europe countries are a lot smaller so these derbies often feature teams that play a literal stones throw away from one another.

Derbies in Europe are often fueled by things bigger than sports. It maybe a class thing or a religious thing or even a political thing, but these battles pack a punch that is lacking here in the Western Hemisphere.

Due to the size of the United States (and Canada) local derbies are much rarer. Add in the split conference format each North American League employs and you are hard-pressed to find a legitimate local derby here in the land of the four majors.

For example, the Yankees and Mets are 9.8 miles apart from each other. That distance (or lack of it) should lend itself to a heated rivalry and hatred among fan bases.

While there is disdain among the fan bases and a nifty little rivalry between the two franchises, it isn’t as vicious as it would be if the two teams competed in the same division.

In a land with 122 professional sports teams there are only a handful of organic local derbies. One of the best is the NHL’s Battle of New York between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders.

The Rangers are, always have been, and always will be “New York’s Team.” They are the ritzy, shiny, and rich club that has a controlling grip on Gotham. The Rangers are able to attract the biggest names to come play at the World’s Most Famous Arena with a two pronged approach; money and the promise of the Big Apple.

The Islanders on the other hand play in a downtrodden arena*, in the middle of suburban Nassau County. Since saving the team in 2000, Owner Charles Wang has lost millions of dollars over the years trying to keep the Islanders afloat.

The Islander/Ranger rivalry has developed a blue collar vs. white collar theme. Islander fans view Ranger fans as corporate sell outs and Ranger fans look at Islander fans as wannabes.

The Rangers have it all. They are cash-rich, play in the center of the universe, and are an Original Six Franchise.

The Islanders are quite the opposite.

Both fanbases cling to those facts and use them to fuel their hatred for the other side.

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Nassau Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum

The Islanders and Rangers have each won four Stanley Cups in very different ways.

The Rangers last won in 1994 after going 54 years without a Cup. Three of their four Stanley Cups came when the NHL had just six teams.

The Islanders on the other hand won four Stanley Cups in a row between 1979-80 and 1982-83. They lost in the cup final to Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers in 1984 — ending a streak of 19 straight playoff series wins.

Last year both the Islanders and Rangers made the playoffs in the same season for the first time since 2007. They are both expected to do the same this year. Hell, maybe they’ll play each other in the post season for the first time since 1994.

Tonight the Islanders and Rangers will meet for the 184th time at Nassau Coliseum.

When the Isles and Rangers play at the Coliseum, Ranger fans invade causing a 50/50 split in the crowd. There are tons of Ranger fans on Long Island and it is much cheaper for them to see a game at NVMC than it is at MSG, so the crowd grows bi-lateral.

This is a volatile mixture of people and usually ends up culminating in a few fights in the stands and maybe one or two rumbles on the ice.

The Coliseum is very compact and holds noise with the best of ’em so the back and forth that takes place in the crowd causes the building to sway back and forth depending on who has the momentum.

The so-called “Battle of New York” always drips with narratives, but tonight’s edition contains some terrific storylines.

The Islanders shocked Hockeydom on Sunday by trading perennial 30-goal man/Cinderella Story Matt Moulson to the Buffalo Sabres for Thomas Vanek.

Islander GM Garth Snow said he made the move because he didn’t like the way the team was playing, and wanted to shake things up.

Vanek is expected to make his Islander debut and I can not imagine a better scenario for that occasion.

On the other side of the ice we have the struggling Rangers. Off to a 3-7-0 start under new head coach Alain Vigneault, it is getting late early for the Blueshirts who can’t get on the same page.

Despite being so early in the season, these two teams both in need of some points, getting them at the expense of a bitter rival makes it that much sweeter.

The feud between the Islanders and Rangers is a rarity in American sporting culture. A rivalry that is not based solely on location or a few rough games over the years. No, this is a rivalry that runs deep. For those involved it is a geopolitical battle, a battle of good vs. evil, a battle of rich vs. poor. It splits homes and ends friendships. It is a jewel to be cherished and a game to be watched.