On Thursday, Adam Fox will venture into hostile territory: His own backyard.
The Rangers' rookie defenseman is as familiar as anyone with the rivalry between the Rangers and Islanders, but he got his first taste of it as a player in the Blueshirts' rout of the Isles on Monday night at Madison Square Garden. On Thursday night the scene will shift to Nassau Coliseum, a rink that for Fox is close to home only in the literal sense, even though it is a place he would go from time to time to root for the visitors.
Fox, of course, grew up a diehard Ranger fan in Jericho, just a few miles down the Northern State Parkway from the Coliseum exit. He played his first of many youth hockey games at the Coliseum when he was 8 years old.
"A little different type of game now, obviously," Fox said, but one he is eager to experience. He scored in Monday's 6-2 Ranger runaway - the goal that went down as the game-winner in the first of three meetings between these bitter rivals in a nine-day span - and said afterward that "scoring against a team that was 10 minutes from my house was pretty cool."
On Thursday night he'll play that team again, this time 10 minutes from his house.
"It definitely doesn't feel like going home - much more the feel of a road game than going home for me," Fox told NYRangers.com after the Blueshirts' practice on Wednesday in Westchester. "I used to go to those games at the Coliseum growing up, and with the crowd split like it is there you just hear the atmosphere from the start of the game, even during the National Anthem. That place gets going when it's a Ranger-Islander game, so I expect it to be a good crowd there."
It will be a little different type of game and a little different type of player since the last time the 21-year-old carved the Coliseum ice. The Rangers' first game at Nassau Coliseum in just shy of five years comes at a time when Fox, in the words of David Quinn, is playing "the best hockey he's played for us."
Fox had a goal and an assist in Monday's win, his fifth multi-point game of his rookie season. He has nine points in the last seven games, which is second-most among all NHL defensemen since New Year's Eve. And it's hardly a case of riding any teammate's coattails: Those nine points include eight assists that have set up seven different goal-scorers.
Overall, with 26 points through 45 games, last year's runner-up for the Hobey Baker Award now stands third in scoring among NHL rookie defensemen, behind only a pair of top-seven Draft choices playing in the Western Conference, in Colorado's Cale Makar and Vancouver's Quinn Hughes.
"That's not my main focus," Fox said of the points. Stepping into his first NHL season, he said, "I didn't set any kind of number for myself. You could compare it I guess off of how other people have done, but for me, it has always been just trying to come in and make an impact. Whether that means putting up a bunch of points or not, just play well, make good plays and just try to be an impactful player.
"Having a decent amount of points at this point of the year is nice, obviously, but there's still half a year to go and I don't want to sit on the first half too much. I know I have to finish strong here."
Were he still in college, he would have finished 10 games ago. During his three years at Harvard, Fox played 35 games as a freshman, then 29, then 33 last season as a junior. There might have been potential for him to encounter a rookie wall somewhere around the New Year, but since the calendar has turned Fox has only raised his game in all areas of the ice - in addition to the nine points in seven games, his possession numbers, along with partner Ryan Lindgren, have been the best on the team, and the 5-11, 181-pound blueliner has become an increasingly intelligent defender as his first season has progressed.
"I think this is the best hockey he's played for us, over these last few games," Quinn said. "He's been outstanding offensively, and his defensive game the other night was really good. I think this is the best he's played this season.
"The thing I've liked about him from day one here is, when it's an obvious defensive situation he's done a really good job of winning battles, competing on pucks, understanding how he's going to have to win each 1-on-1 battle he faces. With a smaller guy he can use more strength; with a bigger guy he's done a good job of understanding body position and stick position.
"And the thing that I like in those situations is, he's very competitive, and he's in the moment. Where he continues to improve is deciding, when there's situations in our game, is this an offensive situation or is this a defensive situation? I think he's done a better job of assuming defensive responsibility as opposed to assuming offensive responsibility. That's a balancing act for all players, but in particular for an offensive defensemen."
On Monday night, Fox knew an offensive situation when he saw one. Drifting toward the blue line to take a pass from Jesper Fast, he sized up his defender, Anthony Beauvillier, atop the right circle and put on a quick little change of direction to shed the Islander winger, then saw a little daylight between Semyon Varlamov and the short-side post and didn't miss it.
He didn't hide on Monday how special scoring that goal was; by Wednesday, he had more or less moved past it. It is one aspect of the jump from NCAA to NHL that Fox has found a pleasant change: Whereas college teams mostly spend their week practicing between weekend games, in the NHL there is much less time and inclination to dwell on past performances, good or bad.
"It's kind of weird in that if you have a bad game or two here, in a way it's not as impactful maybe as in college, because you've got to move on really quickly from it," said Fox, who led the NCAA in points per game last season with 1.45. "You really don't have time to linger on the losses or on the wins. But also, I love playing games, and college is a lot of long practices. So I'm trying to just recover well, and it's a lot more fun to be playing games than practices."
It is that much more fun when you're playing for the team you grew up rooting for, and when your rookie season is going the way Fox's has been going - making the transition to the NHL, as his Head Coach has said, look way easier than it is. He has played in all 45 of the Rangers' games so far; No. 46 comes Thursday night, when Fox will be wearing the sweater of his childhood team as a visitor in his own backyard.
"You go into most games trying to treat it like every other game," Fox said. "But you play the Islanders, it's a rivalry and you can see it in the crowd from the start."