By Peter Schwartz
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Back in October of 2002, I sat it a small press room at Weeb Ewbank Hall and listened to then-Jets head coach Herman Edwards utter words that have been referred to over and over again by players, coaches, fans, and reporters.
The Jets were 2-5 and Edwards was asked if he was worried that the players might give up on the season.
"You play to win the game," said Edwards. "Hello! You play to win the game. You don't play to just play it. That's the great thing about sports. You play to win."
Let history show that the Jets would go on to win the AFC East and beat the Colts in an AFC Wild Card game that season.
Fourteen years later, the Islanders were in a situation Thursday where a loss, arguably, would have been more beneficial than a win.
A defeat to the Rangers would have ensured the number one wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and a first-round playoff matchup with the Florida Panthers. Had the Rangers won, they would have wrapped up third place in the Metropolitan Division, but the reward would have been a first-round series against the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins.
But that didn't happen.
The Islanders completed a four-game season sweep of the Rangers with a resounding 4-1 win at Madison Square Garden. However, it would not be a reach to suggest that there were some, if not many, Islanders fans that would have preferred a loss.
After all, one would think that the road to the conference finals would be, at least on paper, a bit easier against the Panthers and say the Lightning, than having to go through the Penguins and Capitals.
But the Islanders ignored all of that and they "played to win the game." They played like a team that didn't care who they were facing in the playoffs and dominated their cross-town rivals. Despite the increased likelihood of having to face Sidney Crosby & Co. next week, the Islanders were 100 percentright to play to win for a number of reasons.
* First off, you want to be playing your best hockey heading into the playoffs. After hitting a rut, the Islanders have won six of their last seven games and seem to have their mojo back with just two games to go in the regular season.
* Second, be careful what you wish for. Even if the Islanders wind up facing the Panthers, which is still possible, there's no guarantee they will beat Florida. While the Capitals have wrapped up the Presidents' Trophy and the Penguins will head into the playoffs on a roll, the Eastern Conference has been competitive. Nothing should surprise anybody.
* Third, you can't be afraid of the Penguins. Granted, the 5-0 loss to Pittsburgh this past Saturday at Barclays Center was tough to watch, but it was just one game. Who says the Isles can't beat them? The Islanders went 1-2-1 against the Penguins during the regular season, but the playoffs can be a different story. If a couple of breaks went there way, they could have beaten the Pens two years ago instead of losing in six games.
* Fourth, it's just nonsensical to think that a team would intentionally try to lose a game. Even if you take the gambling aspect out of it, these are professionals. When they hit the ice, the objective is to win and that's what the Islanders went out and did. Also, it's not like it's possible to call up your entire AHL team to fill in.
Having said that, I would rest some guys this weekend and maybe take a look-see at some guys from AHL Bridgeport, but the guys on the ice should always try to win.
* Fifth, a rivalry is a rivalry. The Islanders just don't like losing to the Rangers.
"It feels great," captain John Tavares said after the victory. "Every win feels great. I've said in previous wins against these guys our fans take a lot of pride in these games and so do we."
These games are always treated differently than others and the Islanders did have some extra motivation to win. They had never swept the Rangers in a season prior to Thursday. It won't help them advance in the playoffs for the first time since 1993, but for the moment, it's a great feeling for the franchise.
* And lastly, the season isn't over yet. The Islanders still have two games left and the Rangers have one. If the Islanders and Rangers finish in a tie, the Rangers get the tiebreaker and the Penguins in the first round. You just don't know what is going to happen from game to game, so take the wins when and where you can.
It was the polar opposite of what the Jets went through in 2002, but I think Edwards would be proud of how the Islanders approached Thursday's game. It wasn't a must-win for them as they had already clinched a playoff spot, but there are no sure things in life and you have to take the wins when you can.
No matter what the situation is, "You play to win the game!"
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