UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- They said this was the last game. But when it was over, they kept talking about the next one.
The next game they'll play, and maybe the next game they'll play here.
Because for all the talk about how Tuesday was the last New York Rangers-New York Islanders game at the Coliseum, there were always those two other words: regular season. And after Tuesday's 2-1 Rangers win, the idea of a Rangers-Islanders playoff series somehow felt more likely, perhaps even inevitable.
"Of course we do," the Islanders' Matt Martin said, when someone asked if they want to see that happen. "I think it'd be good for New York in general. ... If it does happen, I think it'll be exciting."
So does everyone else.
The teams have played five times already, with the Islanders dominating the first three, and the Rangers coming from behind for a wild 6-5 win in February and winning a much tighter game Tuesday. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday afternoon that the Islanders had no doubt been "the better team on the ice" in the first four games of the series, but by the end of the night, there was little to choose between the two.
"They're a good team," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "So are we."
They all agreed this one had a playoff feel, something the Rangers had felt in recent games in Detroit and Chicago and expect to feel again Wednesday in Washington. But they also agreed there was something different about playing here, with fans hyped up and players seeming to be hyped up too.
The Rangers won it because of a brilliant goal by Kevin Hayes in the second period, then a somewhat fortunate goal from Rick Nash early in the third. Nash took a shot that was headed wide, but saw it deflect off the skate of the Islanders' Ryan Strome and carom past Jaroslav Halak into the net.
The Islanders lost it because when they dominated play in the first period, they were only able to come away with a 1-0 lead.
When it was over, the Islanders were still in first place in the Metropolitan Division, but with a slim one-point lead over the Rangers. And the Rangers have four games in hand.
As it stands right now, the teams wouldn't meet in the first round of the playoffs. For that to change, they'd need to finish second and third in the division (third-place Pittsburgh is three points behind the Rangers, four behind the Islanders), or first and fourth.
For now, you can only say that it could happen. But maybe you could also say that it should happen.
For now, you can also say that the Islanders measure themselves against the Rangers more than the Rangers do against the Islanders, not surprising given that one team went to the Stanley Cup final last year and the other didn't make the playoffs.
"They're a good hockey team," Martin said. "At some point, we're probably going to have to go through them."
The Islanders long ago won the Rangers' respect, but the Rangers talk and think of bigger things. They know where they were last June, and they long to get back and win this time.
They look at the way they played Tuesday, and the way they played in Detroit and Chicago, as signs that it could happen.
"It's about finding ways to win," Vigneault said. "That's what we did."
They won the last regular-season game they'll ever play at this old building, one where every Rangers visit felt like a playoff game.
But they know they could be back. If they are, it won't just feel like a playoff game.
It will really be one.
And when that series is over, it really would feel like the end.