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New York Times
22 Apr 2023

NextImg:New York at the Center of the (Sports) Universe

For three straight days, people in sports jerseys of various colors moved in, out and around Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. For some it was their destination. For others it was a changing point. But for fans of five teams in two sports in one metropolitan area, it was a hub for that incomparable and captivating springtime buzz: the playoffs.

Across the United States and Canada, many cities are hosting playoff games in professional basketball and hockey. But nowhere is the action more abundant than in the greater New York area, where all five professional winter-season teams were in the postseason.

It was the first time the five locals had been in the playoffs at the same time since 1994, the year Madison Square Garden was the pulsating star at the core of the sports universe. The Rangers and Knicks traded nights at the Garden from April to June that spring, right through to the finals of both league’s playoffs, and the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. Along the way, all five teams played dates in that one arena during the playoffs.

By Saturday night, three of the teams will have played at the Garden, but all five — the New York Islanders on Long Island; the Nets in Brooklyn; the Knicks and the Rangers in Manhattan; and the Devils in New Jersey — had been competing somewhere in the relatively condensed metro area in first-round playoff games.

“There’s a buzz in the area, for sure,” said Ryan Pulock, defenseman for the Islanders, after his team pounded the visiting Carolina Hurricanes, 5-1, on Friday.

It was the first playoff game held at the two-year-old UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., about a 35-minute ride from Penn Station on the Long Island Railroad. The same night, basketball fans could ride that rail line (or the subway) to Penn Station, walk upstairs and see the Knicks beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, 99-79, at Madison Square Garden in Game 3 of that series.

Jalen Brunson, the Knicks guard, pointed out that the crowd and the building were ready for the moment.

“Being in this environment, there is no other replica,” Brunson said. “There is nothing that comes close to it.”

Rangers fans flocked to New Jersey for the first two playoff games against the Devils.Credit...Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

On Thursday, the Devils and the Rangers played in Newark for Game 2 of that series, and some fans from New York hopped on a New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to fill the Prudential Center. At the same time, barely 14 miles away, the Nets — who once shared an arena with the Devils in East Rutherford, N.J. — hosted the Philadelphia 76ers at the Barclays Center, and lost Game 3.

The basketball playoffs continued in Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon, but they came to an end for the Nets, who were eliminated in a first-round sweep by the 76ers.

But anyone still wanting more playoff action could take the No. 2 train back to Penn Station to see the Rangers host the Devils in Game 3 at the Garden later on Saturday. On Sunday, the Knicks will have more basketball to play, while the Islanders will skate again on Long Island.

Eight playoff games in four arenas in four days involving five local teams: It’s a New York-New Jersey playoff bonanza.

“It’s awesome for local fans,” said Kyle Palmieri, the Islanders winger. “I grew up as a local fan, and I watched all these teams.”

He also played for two of them. Palmieri was born in Smithtown, Long Island, and moved with his family to Montvale, N.J., as a boy. He played for the Devils from 2015 until he was traded to the Islanders in 2021, just in time to participate in the Isles’ last game at the old Nassau Coliseum — a dramatic 3-2 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on June 23, 2021.

Now, even with his focus on his own club’s series against Carolina, he can marvel at all the local teams playing at once.

“It’s a special thing to have everyone involved,” he said. “It doesn’t happen too often.”

Through Saturday, there will have been more than 120,000 total fans at the games. One of them is Lucas Whitehead, 27, from Saskatchewan, Canada, who was in the area to attend a conference at the United Nations on Indigenous governance. He bought an Islanders jersey and marveled at the atmosphere of the UBS Arena’s first playoff game.

“The energy in here was like nothing I’ve seen before,” he said after Friday’s game. “I’ve been to a lot of arenas. We went to M.S.G. and the Prudential Center, and I’ve been to a lot in Canada. This was the craziest.”

But the Garden was poised to come to life again on Saturday, for the Rangers-Devils game. The Rangers fans made their presence felt in Newark, but at home, when their team scores and the crowd sings their goal song and the walls vibrate, it can create a swell of momentum for the team.

“It’s amazing — it’s one of the cooler experiences you’ll have,” Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers center, said after practice on Friday, about two hours after the Knicks practiced at the same building in Westchester County. “It’s hard to explain it to someone who’s not on the ice and doesn’t get to be part of it in that moment.”

As the playoffs move into May, the number of local teams will dwindle. But there could be even more excitement ahead. If the Rangers and Islanders win their series, the two rivals, whose fan bases generally loathe each other, would meet in the second round, their first postseason encounter since the Rangers swept the Islanders in that fateful spring of ’94.

That would suit Filip Chytil, the Rangers center who is originally from the Czech Republic. Before joining the Rangers in 2017, Chytil played one year professionally for the Czech team PSG Zlín and said its rivalry with HC Kometa Brno was fiery. But playing the Islanders in New York would be even more intense.

“That would be great,” Chytil said Friday. “It’s a big ‘if’ at this moment. But we wouldn’t have to travel very much. Just take a bus.”

Or, if the team prefers, there are plenty of trains in and out of Penn Station.