Let’s take a trip back in time to April 14, 1988. On that fateful day, the New York Islanders were fighting for their playoff lives against the New Jersey Devils in Game Six of the first round. The Isles, five years removed from winning four-straight Stanley Cups, were still in the upper echelon of the NHL, winning their sixth division title in 11 seasons. The Devils, in just their sixth season in New Jersey, made the playoffs for the first time since the move from Colorado, and just the second time in franchise history (dating back to 1975 in Kansas City), looking for their first ever playoff win. The Devils made a magical run to get the last playoff spot, and were giving the favored Islanders all they could handle. The previous season the Isles defeated the Washington Capitals 4-3 in four overtimes in an instant “Easter” Classic which remains one of the franchise’s biggest victories. But 1988 was a different story. Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Ken Morrow and Billy Smith still wore the blue and orange, but it was a different Islanders team. The Devils won the game that day 6-5, eliminating the Islanders and forever altering the landscape of New York hockey.
That game would be the last Potvin played as an Islander. Smith, who played in 38 games in 1988, played in just 17 in 1989, his last as an Islander. The Islanders missed the playoffs in 1989 for the first time since 1974, their second season in the league. They have made the playoffs seven times since, and have only won two playoff series, both coming in 1993. In that time the Isles have hired and fired countless head coaches, suffered through the atrocious reign of Mike Milbury as both a coach and general manager, and have changed owners three times, including the guy who was later found guilty of fraud and didn’t actually have any money. They still play in the same ratty arena that opened in 1972. And in 2010, they appear to be headed for another bottom five finish, which would be the seventh time since 1995 they would achieve that dubious feat.
That game also changed the fortunes of the Devils, who have had a heavenly run since then. They made it all the way to the conference finals in 1988 before losing to the Boston Bruins. They made the playoffs from 1990-1993, but lost in the first round each season. But then in 1994 they made another run to the conference finals, taking their cross-river rival New York Rangers to overtime in Game Seven scoring the tying goal with 7.7 seconds left, before falling to the eventual cup champs in the extra period. But they finally broke through in 1995, winning their first Stanley Cup, knocking off the heavily-favored Detroit Red Wings in four games.
The Devils would win two more Cups in the next eight seasons, defeating the defending champion Dallas Stars in 2000 and the upstart Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003. They made the Cup Finals in 2001, losing to the Colorado Avalanche, and they Devils have only missed the playoffs twice since that first playoff victory (1989, 1996). Led by GM Lou Lamoriello, goaltender Martin Brodeur, defensemen Scott Stevens, Scott Neidermayer, Brian Rafalski, and forwards Bill Guerin, Patrick Elias, Jason Arnott, and several more All-Star caliber players, the Devils have been a model franchise for the past two decades. They currently play in a brand-new arena in Newark, NJ and are led by the young and talented Zach Parise, who was one of the leaders of Team USA’s improbable Olympic run, and who scored the game-tying goal against Canada with seconds left. Oh, and the Devils drafted him one spot after the Islanders in 2003.
The Islanders, Devils, and Rangers are a unique trio. They make up the only three-team market in any of the major sports. New York is certainly used to having multiple options (remember there used to be three baseball teams), as each time shares the spotlight with a cross-town rival. But with the economy shrinking, attendance sinking, and especially considering the popularity of the NHL on the sports landscape, does New York really need three hockey teams? The answer is probably not. In this era, no region needs three teams in any sport. The Rangers, an original six squad that calls Madison Square Garden home, are staying put.
So if the choice of who is expendable is down to the Isles and Devils, the answer, and it pains me as an Isles fan to say this, is clear. Is it the team with a new arena, marquee stars, and a stellar run in the past two decades in assembling a team in the draft, trades, and free agency, hiring the right coach to push the right buttons, and comes through time and time again in the regular and postseason? Or is it the team that plays in one of the oldest and most decrepit arenas in all of sports, can’t attract marquee free agents, has had poor drafts, has made terrible trades and hasn’t won a playoff series in 17 years, and is already fighting off constant rumors of relocation?
Could anyone watching that Islanders-Devils playoff game back in 1988, whether they were in the stands at Brendan Byrne Arena or on TV across Long Island, New Jersey, and New York City on Sports Channel, have realized that these franchises with completely diametric histories would be trading paths as a result of the Devils upset victory? Neither franchise has been the same since, and the Devils have been the beneficiaries. The Devils have become the Rangers top local rival, as the two have met in the playoffs five times since 1992 (The Rangers hold a 4-1 head-to-head advantage including a five game win in the first round of 2008), and the Rangers games against the Devils seem to have much more intensity now than their games against the Islanders.
The Islanders are caught in the middle of a political and financial firestorm, and their ice is melting. Local politicians don’t want to spend more government money to keep the decaying franchise around. Many Long Islanders don’t want the Island to become more congested, and are concerned about the traffic and environmental impact of Islander’s owner Charles Wang’s plan to redevelop the land around the Nassau Coliseum. So in the next few seasons, if you see a team in Kansas City, Hamilton, Winnipeg, or other elsewhere and none on Long Island, you can go back to April 14, 1988 - the day the Islanders fell to the Devils and began their descent into Hell.