It was only two weeks ago that both the New York Islanders and New York Rangers were near the top of the Atlantic Division. Now only one team remains there while the other has dropped toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
The Islanders hope to end a season-high six-game losing streak and remain perfect this season against the Rangers when the teams meet at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
A 2-0 home victory over the Rangers (22-17-4) on Dec. 26 moved the Islanders one point ahead of their Atlantic rivals and also put them one point behind first-place New Jersey. The win was the Islanders' fourth in five games while the Rangers lost their sixth straight of what would become a season-high seven-game skid.
Since then, however, the Islanders have managed only eight goals during their losing streak, dropping them down to 13th in the East. The Rangers, meanwhile, have rebounded from their skid with four straight wins and are tied for fifth in the conference with Carolina and Ottawa.
"Instead of second-guessing and waiting around for the next guy, we all have to believe in each other," Islanders center Mike Sillinger said. "Everyone goes through those slides. But the bleeding has to stop now."
Facing their biggest rivals could be exactly what the Islanders need to avoid their first seven-game losing streak since Nov. 20-Dec. 4, 2003.
The Islanders (19-19-3) have won the first three meetings this season and four in a row overall after losing the previous five matchups. Viktor Kozlov scored four goals in a 7-4 victory at MSG on Dec. 3 and Jason Blake recorded a hat trick in a 4-3 win on Dec. 19.
It will be difficult for the Islanders to recapture their early season success unless captain Alexei Yashin can do the same. Yashin has failed to record a point during the six-game skid after collecting at least one point in each of his previous 10 contests. Yashin was benched for all but one shift of the second period in New York's 4-2 loss Saturday at Carolina.
"You look through the whole league, and your best players have to be your best players night after night," Islanders coach Ted Nolan said. "That's the price you pay to be an elite player. It just comes with the territory."
Matt Cullen's second goal of the game with 6:05 left in regulation lifted the Rangers to a 4-3 victory Saturday at Montreal. Martin Straka added a goal and an assist for the Rangers, who have three straight one-goal wins.
"We were sick and depleted a couple of weeks ago and we went on a seven-game losing streak, and teams didn't really feel sorry for us," left wing Brendan Shanahan said. "I guess you can feel for them, but at the same time you try to take advantage of them."
Although it's not expected to keep him out of the lineup Tuesday, star forward Jaromir Jagr didn't play in the third period Saturday due to a slight groin pull.
"It's merely precautionary because he's a pretty valuable guy for us," Rangers coach Tom Renney said.
Jagr, tied with Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis for fourth in the league with 54 points, has three goals and one assist this season against the Islanders. His 128 career points against them are by far his most against any team.
Henrik Lundqvist figures to make his eighth straight start in net Tuesday. He played poorly in his first meeting this season against the Islanders, but rebounded with a strong 36-save performance in a 2-0 loss at Nassau Coliseum on Dec. 26.