For the first time in six years the Rangers (20-16-4, 44 pts) and Islanders (21-16-4, 46 pts) will be a playing a late-season game that is critical for both teams when the two rivals hook up at the Nassau Coliseum on Saturday night. And make no bones about it, this is most definitely a crucial match for both sides, what with the Rangers hanging on to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, trailing the seventh place Islanders by two points, though with a game in hand, but with only eight games left to play on their 2013 schedule.
The last time these teams met with the stakes so high was late in the 2006-07 campaign. With both clubs jockeying for playoff positioning, the Rangers grabbed a 2-1 overtime victory at the Coliseum on March 25th before the Islanders snagged a 3-2 shootout victory over the Rangers, also on Long Island, on April 3rd of that season. As it turned out, both the Rangers and Islanders made the playoffs that season---the last time the Islanders have reached the post-season entering this year. The Isles were bounced in the first round, losing to the Sabres in five games. The Rangers swept the Thrashers before falling to the very same Sabres in six games.
Of course thsoe games and that season have no bearing on tonight's clash, but they do provide some historical perspective in explaining that it's been a long time since both teams were playoff contenders battling for, possibly, the same post-season berth.
The Rangers enter play 4-1-1 in their last six games, coming off Wednesday's 3-2 shootout victory over the Maple Leafs. After a sluggish start to the game, the Rangers played stingy defense---holding the Maple Leafs without a shot for nearly 24 minutes at one stretch---a far from cry from less-than-acceptable defensive performances the previous two games against Toronto and Carolina.
Head coach John Tortorella shuffled his lines during the game Wednesday, and looks to be juggling his second and third-line combinations for tonight's game while keeping the top line of Rick Nash-Derek Stepan-Ryan Callahan intact, along with the fourth line of Arron Asham-Darroll Powe-Taylor Pyatt. There is also a very good chance that Tortorella will use his top defensive pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi---reunited on Wednesday---against the Islanders top line centered by emerging star John Tavares, who is third in the league with 24 goals and tenth overall with 42 points.
The streaking Islanders have won three in a row, earned points in six straight games (5-0-1), and are an impressive 8-1-1 in their last ten games since March 24th. They are coming off a 2-1 road win in Boston Thursday, in which Josh Bailey scored twice and Evgeni Nabokov stopped 30 of 31 shots. A fairly solid offenisve team all season, the Islanders have stepped up defensively allowing only ten goals in their last seven games.
Nabokov backstopped his 20th win of the season on Thursday night, the eighth time in his career he has reached 20 victories---and the first time he has done so with the Islanders. This season he is 1-2-0 vs. the Rangers, winning a shootout at The Garden, losing in regulation also at MSG, and most recently losing a 2-1 overtime decision to the Rangers on March 7th at the Nassau Coliseum.
New York-New York, and a battle for the playoffs, as well. Doesn't get much better than that on Saturday. So who wins? Share your predictions below.