NEW YORK -- The signs of a big regular-season game were present Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
Media outlets that don't typically cover the morning skates were in attendance with cameras and reporters asking questions, trying to feed the hype machine for the latest game in the rivalry between the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. Typical clichés from the players were followed by atypical hype for a mid-January game. Even the coaches got into the build-up.
The Islanders and Rangers each have at least 50 points at the midway point in the season for the first time since 1978-79, so naturally their game Tuesday at the Garden is being billed locally as one for bragging rights, not to mention two more crucial points in the tightening Metropolitan Division standings.
The Islanders lead the division with 57 points in 42 games. The Rangers have won 13 of their past 14 games, including five in a row, to close the gap to five points; 12 points separated the Islanders and Rangers on Dec. 8, when the Rangers started their hot streak.
"It's still one of 82 and there's still a lot of games to go, but you definitely take these games like [Stanley Cup] Playoff games with the intensity they're played with," New York Islanders captain John Tavares said.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault billed it as a New York classic Monday. He didn't back off the hype Tuesday.
"There is definitely a lot of excitement right now in the air in this building," Vigneault said. "Two teams that are playing well. We both need the points. It's so competitive right now. They're the best in our [division] and we're looking forward to the matchup."
There are pitfalls each team has to avoid in order to get the two points Tuesday.
The Rangers need to avoid the letdown that teams occasionally can fall victim to when they come home after a successful road trip. The Rangers swept their three-game California swing last week, and have this one home game before they start another three-games-in-four-nights road trip Thursday.
"We have to come into the game tonight thinking we just had a good road trip and we have to take care of business at home," Rangers center Derek Stepan said.
For the Islanders, this game is their last in a season-long seven-game road trip, even if the trip has included time at home and bus rides to New Jersey and into Manhattan for games. They have won four of six so far.
"They have a veteran team … and this is a good test for our young guys," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of the Rangers. "It's the last game of a long road trip so I'm just hoping we come out here with the energy we need to start this game tonight."
The similarities between the Rangers and Islanders are striking.
They roll four lines and are fueled by skilled defenses that start the quick transition game each thrives on. They have depth down the middle and are backed by solid goaltending, which for the Rangers has been spectacular of late with Henrik Lundqvist going 11-1-0 with a 1.57 goals-against average and .939 save percentage in his past 12 starts.
"I certainly think the depth on both teams is strong and that's why we've both had very good success this year and they had a lot of success last year," Tavares said. "And I think with the way our [defensemen] are able to move the puck up the ice, and they do a lot of things similar from their back end, it makes a big difference."
As is the case with most games between evenly matched teams, the result could come down to special teams. That's where the difference is right now between the New York rivals, particularly on the power play, where the Rangers have been red-hot of late.
The Rangers are 12-for-34 (35.2 percent) on the power play in their past 11 games while the Islanders are 0-for-13 on the power play in their past three games after going 7-for-20 in their previous four games.
The Islanders, though, are 28-for-31 on the penalty kill in their past 13 games; they are 9-3-1 in that stretch.
"I know for us our power play the last couple of games has got to be better," Tavares said. "And certainly with the way their power play is going … we've got to make sure we're ready. They can make plays and make you pay for sure."
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who is celebrating his 28th birthday Tuesday, will play in his 500th career NHL game.
Rangers forward Martin St. Louis will play in his 1,100th career game. St. Louis did not realize it was his 1,100th game when he was asked about it Tuesday morning.
"It's 1,100 tonight? Is it?" he said. "I mean, definitely 1,000 games is something special in this League, and the way I feel right now is I guess time flies. I can't believe it's another hundred."
Here are the projected lineups:
Josh Bailey - John Tavares - Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner - Brock Nelson - Nikolay Kulemin
Anders Lee - Frans Nielsen - Ryan Strome
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck
Calvin de Haan - Travis Hamonic
Nick Leddy - Johnny Boychuk
Thomas Hickey - Brian Strait
Scratched: Eric Boulton, Matt Donovan
Injured: Mikhail Grabovski (lower body), Matt Carkner (back), Lubomir Visnovsky (upper body)
Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Martin St. Louis
Rick Nash - Derick Brassard - Mats Zuccarello
Carl Hagelin - Kevin Hayes - Jesper Fast
J.T. Miller - Dominic Moore - Lee Stempniak
Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Dan Boyle
John Moore - Kevin Klein
Scratched: Tanner Glass, Matt Hunwick
Status report: Grabovski will miss his second consecutive game because of a lower-body injury. He was injured in the Islanders' 3-2 overtime win against the New Jersey Devils on Friday. … John Moore will play in his fourth straight game after being scratched for six of the previous eight games.
Who's hot: Nash has points in four straight games and 10 goals in the past 15 games. ... St. Louis has goals in back-to-back games and four goals and five assists in the past eight games. … Okposo has points in three straight games.