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Playoffs at stake when Rangers visit Islanders

by Dave Lozo /

It was April 2007 when the New York Islanders and New York Rangers last played a meaningful, late-season game -- and even then, it was far more meaningful to one side than the other.

The Rangers needed two points in their final three games to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Islanders were in a far more desperate situation, sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, four points back of eighth.

Despite squandering a 2-0 lead that night at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders emerged with a 3-2 victory as Miroslav Satan scored the only goal in a shootout and goaltender Wade Dubielewicz made 36 saves.

The Islanders won their final four games to finish eighth with 92 points -- one more than the ninth-place Toronto Maple Leafs -- and earn their only playoff berth in the past seven seasons.

Six years later, the Rangers and Islanders again meet on Long Island in the season's home stretch, and this time the stakes are equally high for both clubs.

"It's an exciting time," Islanders forward Josh Bailey told Arthur Staple of Newsday following a two-goal game in a 2-1 road win against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night. "But I think we've put it in the right perspective. We know we haven't accomplished anything yet."

Entering the game Saturday (7 p.m. ET, MSG, MSG PLUS), the Islanders have 46 points in 41 games, good for seventh in the conference. The Rangers have 44 points in 40 games, which places them in eighth. Looming in ninth are the Winnipeg Jets with 44 points in 42 games.

The Islanders are one of the NHL's hottest teams, going 8-1-1 in their past 10 games. Center John Tavares has thrust himself into consideration for the Hart Trophy with 24 goals and 42 points in 41 games, including six goals during the Islanders' 10-game run. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has started eight of the past nine games and has allowed more than two goals once, when he stopped 33 of 36 shots in a 4-3 shootout win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"I don't even think we're close to playing our best yet," Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic told Newsday before his team defeated Boston. "We've had some good results the last three weeks, but we all feel like we can still get better."

Coach Jack Capuano gave the Islanders a full day of rest Friday, but the Rangers were busy in Greenburgh, N.Y., two days after a 3-2 home shootout victory against the Maple Leafs.

While the Islanders are surging to the finish, the only consistent thing about the Rangers' season has been its inconsistency. It seems that every time players feel they are turning a corner and discovering the form that made them the East's top regular-season team in 2011-12, a loss takes a bite out of them.

The Rangers are 4-1-1 in their past six games, a stretch that followed a 1-3-1 run that was a smaller chunk of a 3-6-1 skid. Offense has been a problem all season, so the Rangers gave up two-time 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik at the NHL Trade Deadline in order to bolster their bottom two lines. The Rangers have responded with 17 goals in their past five games.

It's been a wild, unexpected trip to get to this point for both teams, but it's resulted in New York's hockey rivals playing their biggest game in a very long time.

"What more could you ask for?" Rangers forward Rick Nash said to reporters after practice Friday. "Both teams are desperate for points. It's going to be a battle. It's fun to play in games that mean a lot, not only for the points, but for the rivalry as well. It's going to be a fun night."

"I don't even think we're close to playing our best yet. We've had some good results the last three weeks, but we all feel like we can still get better."
-- Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic

The Rangers are the team doing the chasing right now, but they appear to have the more forgiving conclusion to their schedule.

The Islanders have one home game following their contest with the Rangers, Tuesday against the Florida Panthers. From there, the Islanders finish with five road games in eight days, including a stop in Winnipeg on April 20 in what could essentially decide the final playoff spot in the East.

The Rangers won't face a team in the conference's top eight the rest of the way. They will play the Panthers and New Jersey Devils twice, and the Philadelphia Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes once each.

"A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at games as a must-win, so now there's no question we have to win games to get points," Nash said. "Now the only thing we need is two points. That's it."

There are four holdovers from that important game six years ago -- Rangers Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan and Arron Asham, who scored the Islanders' first goal in that game. Now Asham is on the other side, and he expects Saturday to be special.

"It's great for the rivalry," Asham told ESPN New York. "It felt like the past few years -- just watching it, you know, the Rangers were always in it and the Islanders were at the bottom; it wasn't those important games. We're going to see what they're made of tomorrow. They're playing great hockey, we're starting to come into our own and it's going to be a great battle."


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