All is not completely bleak in the New York sports world. Just look at the NHL.
The Rangers have won 13 of their last 15 games, less than a year after reaching the Stanley Cup Final. They've corrected many of the problems that have plagued them for years -- lack of scoring, a woeful power play -- and they've done so while establishing an identity as a quick, fun team. Rick Nash, who's tied for the league lead in goals with 26, is playing his best hockey since arriving in New York. And just last week, on a road trip out west, the Rangers swept all three California teams, including impressive wins over the first-place Ducks and the defending champion Kings.
And yet despite all that, they might not even be the best team in their own market.
With roughly half the season in the books, the Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division standings, and have been among the most consistent teams in the league all year. Everything seems to finally be coming together for the Isles: They upgraded in goal in the off-season with Jaroslav Halak and strengthened their blue line with training-camp trades for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, while the young core already in place continues to develop. And perhaps most importantly: A year after an injury ended John Tavares's season in Sochi -- the Islanders would go on to finish last in his absence -- the all-world center is once again healthy.
Tuesday night's matchup between the teams at Madison Square Garden had the buildup of a playoff game, and ticket prices skyrocketed on the secondary market: With just hours to go until puck drop, the cheapest seat on StubHub was still well over $200. It was the Islanders fans who went home happy. The Isles chased Henrik Lundqvist in a 3-0 victory, winning face-off after face-off and scoring three times in a dominant second period that cooled off their red-hot rivals. It was the first time that the Islanders shut out the Rangers on Garden ice since 1975, and as the seconds ticked down, fans clad in orange and blue chanted "Let's go Islanders" to celebrate what may well be their team's most meaningful win of the season so far.
A perfect storm of events turned this mid-season Tuesday night game into the hottest ticket in New York. It's been a long time since both the Rangers and Islanders appeared to be truly competitive at the same time, and fans of both teams sought not just bragging rights, but the kind of victory that would shut up the increasingly confident fans of their rival. More crucially, though, last night's game came at a pivotal moment in the history of hockey in New York: Next year, the Islanders will move out of their current arena in the Long Island suburbs and into Barclays Center in Brooklyn -- a move that could change the dynamic of one of the best, most passionate rivalries in professional sports.
It's a rivalry that divides groups of friends and co-workers. It's a rivalry in which trash talk flows freely, both in real life and in the virtual feeds of Facebook and Twitter, even when the teams aren't as good as they are right now. And it's a rivalry that often leads to rowdy, divided arenas, particularly when Rangers fans descend upon Nassau Coliseum.
But there's always been something else going on here. The Rangers are a big-city team -- a classic NHL franchise that calls the famous Madison Square Garden home and gets plenty of media attention. The Islanders, meanwhile, are a younger franchise -- one that represents the suburbs, plays in an arena in the middle of a parking lot, and often exists in the shadow of its Manhattan counterpart. Those identities have helped build the rivalry into what it is today, with animosity toward the opponent handed down through the generations.
But that dynamic is bound to change, at least a little, once the Islanders relocate to Brooklyn. Conventional wisdom would suggest that moving the teams closer together will only make the rivalry stronger, but in this case, moving the Islanders into the city means removing one of the things that gave them their identity, and helped contrast them with the Rangers. This doesn't necessarily mean the rivalry will be worse off, though I'm not sure it means it'll be better, either.
It might be a while before we can really tell: The Islanders are going to try to maintain their existing fans in a way that the Brooklyn Nets didn't have to. But it's likely that they'll also try to establish themselves as a hipper big-city alternative to the Rangers. Even though many Islanders fans will still hail from Nassau and Suffolk counties, the rivalry itself will no longer be one of city versus suburb. A generation or two from now, this rivalry that's stayed so strong despite some crummy teams on both sides could feel a lot different.
Of course, that's looking ahead quite a bit. Right now, there's still half a season left to play, and the Metropolitan Division could be a fun one down the stretch. The always-strong-in-the-regular season Penguins currently sit in second place, and the Capitals -- a hot team in their own right -- are in third. (The Rangers have games against those two teams directly ahead of them, and have the third best points percentage in the division, behind the Isles and Pens.)
Still, it's impossible not to dream of a potential playoff matchup -- the first between these two New York franchises in more than 20 years. Imagine the crowd for such a thing. The Islanders would be looking to avoid ending their run on Long Island with a loss to their hated rival. The Rangers, meanwhile, would be looking to maintain the upper hand that they'd built up over the past several seasons, when they've made a couple of deep playoff runs while the Islanders were still searching for their first postseason series victory since 1993.
Last night was just a taste of how intense this rivalry can be when both teams are strong. And in the final season of the rivalry as we know it, there could be even more where that came from this spring.