There are few more intense rivalries than the NHL’s battle of New York between the Rangers and Islanders. The upcoming battle between these adversaries is even more dramatic as both are teetering on the fine line of making or missing the playoffs in this strike shortened season.
In early April, prior to the first of a home and home series against the Pittsburgh Penguins Ranger coach John Tortorella was asked if he was talking to the team about the trade deadline or the big winning streak the Penguins were presently on. He responded “I don’t give a damn about a deadline or anything else except trying to win.” Focusing on the task at hand, one day at a time has been the coach’s mantra from day one of the season. The Rangers were able to secure three of a possible four points in that two game challenge with a victory in New York and a shootout loss in Pittsburgh. Since then the Rangers defeated Carolina on the road and split a home and home series with Toronto putting them in 8th place, the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with eight games remaining.
This Saturday arch rivals from New York, the Islanders and Rangers meet at the Nassau Coliseum. It has been years since these two teams have engaged in a regular season contest this critical. Although there will still be seven games remaining for each, this particular contest will not only give the winner an edge in the standings but could be the difference between making the playoffs and starting the summer early. Even if both teams make the playoffs the loser of this battle is more likely to end up in the unenviable position of meeting the first place Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round, a team most would prefer to avoid as long as possible. Pittsburgh, when healthy has been nearly unbeatable, recently winning 15 consecutive games before finally yielding to Buffalo on the road on April 2nd.
The Rangers and Islanders have met three times this season with the former taking two by outscoring their rivals 9-6. Although the Rangers took the first match rather easily 4-1, each of the last two games required more than three periods to decide the outcome. The Islanders have played their best hockey of the season the past three weeks winning 8 of 10 capped off by an impressive 2-1 victory Thursday in Boston. In that span they have taken 4 of 6 (12-5-2 overall) on the road and all 4 games on home ice. Their recent success is in large part due to the excellent goal tending of Evengi Nabokov who has been in net for all but one of the last ten games. Offensively, during the same stretch, young stars have been very impressive including 22 year old John Tavares (6 goals), 23 year old Josh Bailey (5 goals) and 28 year old Colin McDonald (5 goals). It will be these three snipers that the Rangers will have to contain if they are to pick up the crucial two points up for grabs Saturday night.
The Rangers, also playing well lately have won 4 of their last 6 with both losses on the road and by only one goal. Like the Islanders, the goaltender is largely responsible for the positive results. During the six game stretch, Henrik Lundqvist has allowed just twelve goals (2.00 GAA) on 220 shots (.946 SV%). Offensively, the most prolific Rangers this season have been left wing Rick Nash (17 goals, 18 assists), center Derek Stepan (14 goals. 20 assists) and right wing Ryan Callahan (11 goals, 9 assists).