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New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders @NHLdotcom
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GAME: New York Rangers (22-29-7-4) at New York Islanders (29-22-9-2).

TIME: Thursday, 7 p.m. EST.

Strengthening their grip on a playoff spot is the top priority for the New York Islanders.

Getting revenge and avoiding a season sweep at the hands of the archrival New York Rangers is surely a close second.

Another chapter in one of hockey's fiercest rivalries will be written Thursday when the Islanders host the Rangers - playing their first game under interim coach Tom Renney - in the sixth and final meeting between the teams this season.

While the Islanders are in position for their third straight trip to the playoffs, the Rangers are on the verge of missing the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.

In an effort to concentrate on his general manager duties, Glen Sather stepped down Wednesday as coach of the Rangers and named Renney interim coach. With the trade deadline less than two weeks away, it is likely that Sather will begin to dismantle his underachieving team and start a much-needed rebuilding phase.

"There isn't anyone in the organization that has a no-trade in his contract, so I think when we get down to that stage we'll make some decisions," Sather said. "We're going to spend the next couple weeks evaluating where we're going to go and how we're going to get to where we decide to go. When the deadline comes around, you'll probably have an idea."

What little success Sather had this season as coach came at the expense of the Islanders.

The Rangers have won all five meetings this season, and are 7-0-2 in the last nine matchups with their biggest rivals.

Goalie Mike Dunham is the player most responsible for that success. Since joining the Rangers in a trade with Nashville on Dec. 12, 2002, Dunham is 7-0-2 against the Isles.

The last matchup between the teams - a 6-2 Rangers' win at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 19 - featured 132 penalty minutes, including six fighting majors and four game misconducts.

Islanders defenseman Eric Cairns felt he was jumped from behind by Rangers defenseman Dale Purinton with 3:56 left in regulation, setting off a series of fights in the final minutes.

"It was a pretty gutless move by a lot of their players, picking their spots and jumping guys from behind," Cairns said. "That's what you expect from a bunch of bottom-dwellers."

When asked what should be expected from Thursday's game, Cairns responded, "We can expect us to win, that's all we want. Other things will take care of themselves."

The Rangers, losers of five of six, are 14 points behind the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 20 games remaining. The Rangers are 6-13-2-1 since Jan. 10, with half of those wins coming against the Islanders.

The Islanders skated to a 0-0 tie against Boston on Tuesday, moving to 6-0-3 in their last nine games at Nassau Coliseum.

The nine-game home unbeaten streak is their longest since a 9-0-1 run from Dec. 16, 1989-Jan. 28, 1990.

STANDINGS: Rangers - 55 points, 4th place, 27 PB, Atlantic Division. Islanders - 69 points, 3rd place, 13 PB, Atlantic Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Rangers - Jaromir Jagr, 23 goals, 37 assists and 60 points; Chris Simon, 208 PIM. Islanders - Trent Hunter, 22 goals and 43 points; Adrian Aucoin, 28 assists; Cairns, 139 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through Feb. 24): Rangers - Power play: 14.0 percent (34 for 242), 25th in NHL. Penalty killing: 80.5 percent (240 for 298), 28th. Islanders - Power play: 17.2 percent (42 for 244), 9th. Penalty killing: 85.8 percent (235 for 274), 2nd.

GOALTENDERS: Rangers - Dunham (14-22-6, 1 SO, 2.93 GAA); Jussi Markkanen (8-10-1, 2, 2.60). Islanders - Rick DiPietro (15-11-5, 3, 2.20); Garth Snow (14-13-4, 1, 2.72).

SEASON SERIES: Rangers, 5-0.

LAST MEETING: Feb. 19; Rangers, 6-2. At New York, Dunham continued his domination of the Islanders with 30 saves, and Tom Poti had a career-high four assists to lead the Rangers.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Rangers - 10-14-4-0 on the road; Islanders - 21-8-3-0 at home.

Associated Press
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