Keith Yandle walked into coffee shops when he played hockey in New York and would hear people talking about the next Rangers game against the Islanders or the New Jersey Devils.
“When you play those teams, even during the regular season, it adds a little bit more,” Yandle said. “Those are fun rivalries.”
Take those rivalries and add the prospect of elimination. The results could mean a spring sports scene in the Big Apple area that hasn’t happened in almost three decades.
All three New York-area teams are in the NHL playoffs this year — just the fourth time that has happened and the first since 2007. Add in the NBA’s Knicks and Brooklyn Nets and it’s the first time the city’s five indoor major professional teams all qualified for the postseason since 1994, when the Rangers lifted the Stanley Cup.
The Devils and Rangers are facing off in the first round, their first playoff matchup since the 2012 Eastern Conference final.
“It’s going to be a great battle,” Devils forward Erik Haula said.
And given the teams’ young talent and potential, it’s easy to envision a championship parade coming to New York or North Jersey in the not-too-distant future.
“It’s awesome for the sport,” said Brian Boyle, who played for the Rangers and Devils before retiring and joining NHL Network. “The passion, that’s what drives it. That’s what makes sports great, and they have that right there. And when they’re all doing fairly well — there’s no doormats now — it’s exciting.”
Much like Major League Baseball’s Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets, the mix of contending hockey teams in New York makes for interesting tension in the stands and in local establishments showing the games on TV.
“You’re cheering against your neighbors, your cousins, your family,” said Islanders forward Kyle Palmieri, who also played for the Devils after growing up in New Jersey. “Everyone kind of has their own alliances.”
Because of that, visiting fans bleed into the crowd more easily than in other markets. But Zach Parise, now with the Islanders after captaining the Devils to the Cup Final in 2012, said it doesn’t feel at all like a neutral-site game — certainly not in the playoffs.
“Both fanbases are so into it that they drown out the other half really quick,” Parise said.
Yandle, who broke the NHL’s consecutive games played record last season before retiring to join TNT, pointed out the New York-area teams all making the playoffs is good for the sport’s bottom line, too, from revenue to ratings.
Former goalie Kevin Weekes, who played for all three and now works for ESPN, said: “You can’t put a price on” playoff hockey at Madison Square Garden.
You can, and it’s over $350 on the secondary market just to get into the place known as “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”
It may be a little cheaper at Prudential Center in Newark or sparkling new UBS Arena at Belmont Park on Long Island, which will host a postseason game for the first time in its second year of existence after the Islanders clinched their spot Wednesday night. They’ll open against the Carolina Hurricanes.
No matter where the games are, at least for the first round, the eyes of the hockey community will be drawn to New York or New Jersey just about every night. That’s not something three-time Devils Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Ken Daneyko expected to experience again in his lifetime.
“When they do, all three in, it’s great for our market, for New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Long Island — you name it,” said Daneyko, who’s now an NHL Network analyst. “Hockey’s at the forefront and that’s what we love, what we want.”
Beyond adding more banners to hang from the rafters, it also could be a boon for youth hockey in the area. Much like Palmieri, James and Trevor van Riemsdyk and others from New York and New Jersey wanted to be like Mark Messier and Brian Leetch, the next generation of kids playing could say the same about Adam Fox, Jack Hughes and the other stars playing for the Rangers, Devils and Islanders.
“It has come a long way,” Palmieri said. “You look at the rinks that are being built and the youth hockey teams that are popping up, the opportunities for guys to make it to higher levels is really awesome. Any time you generate buzz about hockey in that market, it’s doing well for youth hockey and everyone.”
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