Beginning with Tuesday night's contest at Madison Square Garden the Rangers (27-21-3, 57 pts) will face the Islanders (20-24-7, 47 pts) three times over the next ten days, likely adding much fuel to the fire that is already an intense rivalry for both teams and their respective fan bases. In fact three of the Rangers next five games will come against the Islanders, whom they will also face at Yankee Stadium as part of the Stadium Series next Wednesday night before finishing their season series with another tilt at The Garden on Friday night January the 31st.
In a small way these important divisional games will take on the feel of a mini playoff series, something the Rangers and Islanders have not engaged in with one another since the Blueshirts swept the Isles in the opening round of the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the added spectre of the outdoor game next week, as well as back-to-back games against one another next week, this could be the most compelling ten days in this rivalry in nearly two decades.
Of course the Rangers approach to all of this is to focus on one game at a time, starting with Tuesday's contest on home ice. The Rangers enter play on a roll, having won three straight and six of seven overall. They are 11-3-1 in their last 15 games, and their 57 points is good enough to put them into second place in the tight Metropolitan Division. The Islanders are likely in a more desperate spot, currently in last place in the Metropolitan Division, though only five points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference still with 31 games to play.
The Rangers are receiving stout defensive play from the entire team, solid goaltending, and offensive contributions from up and down the lineup. Of course it does not hurt that at the top of the lineup is Rick Nash, and he has scored seven goals in his last eight games, including a pair in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. Nor does it hurt that Henrik Lundqvist has regained top form and has incredibly finally evened his record on the season at 17-17-3 following his 24-save performance on Sunday. Lundqvist has surrendered two goals or fewer in six straight starts, and he is carrying the bulk of the workload between the pipes now having started ten of the Rangers last 12 games.
While Lundqvist was expected to start, an illness will sideline him for Tuesday's game. Cam Talbot will start for the Blueshirts after his 4-1 win over Ottawa on Saturday afternoon. Talbot started the first game this season against the Isles, a 3-2 Rangers victory back in late October.
Evgeni Nabokov started the first two games in goal for the Islanders against the Rangers this season, but he is currently on Injured Reserve for the second time this year, so likely Kevin Poulin will get the starting nod Tuesday. Poulin watched third-string goalie Anders Nilsson backstop a 4-3 shootout victory over the Flyers on Monday afternoon. The 23 year-old Poulin had started seven games in a row following Nabokov's latest injury before resting on Monday, and had played exceptionally well, backstopping a four-game winning streak along the way. On the season he is 10-14-0 in 24 appearances with a 3.10 goals against average and .895 save percentage.
The Islanders have struggled all year long to keep the puck out of their own net, as they try and find a way to make the playoffs for a second consecutive season. Their struggles defensively, where the Islanders have surrendered 166 goals--the most in the Eastern Conference and second most in the entire NHL--have more than offset a highly-skilled offense which is led by the league's second leading scorer John Tavares and which features three players with 16 goals or more. The Islanders stand at a minus 25 goal differential on the season.