Doormats No Longer, Isles Must Prove They Aren't Punching Above Their Weight

By Sean Hartnett
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Get ready for an epic clash on the Nassau Coliseum ice when the Rangers and Islanders lock horns on Saturday night. In recent seasons, “The Battle of New York” has lacked on-ice importance required to go alongside the obvious disdain between the two rival fan bases for the feud to be truly significant.

With the resurgent Islanders surpassing nearly everyone’s predictions this season, all the ingredients are there for Saturday’s meeting to be a game that will be remembered for years to come.

You would have to go as far back as April 2, 1993, to remember a time when a regular-season meeting between the Rangers and Islanders held such significance. Back then, the Rangers were the cursed ones as Isles fans taunted their Manhattan cousins with chants of “1940.” It was a season before Mark Messier hosted the Stanley Cup over his head and Rangers fans wept as confetti rained down on the Madision Square Garden ice.

Isles No Longer Doormats, Still Must Prove They Aren’t Just Punching Above Their Weight

Now in 2013, it’s the Islanders chance to prove they aren’t just punching above their weight. The Isles have a scorching 8-1-1 record in their past ten games and are riding a three-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s clash with the Blueshirts.

Thursday night’s shocking 2-1 victory over the contending Boston Bruins was further proof that the Islanders have come a long way from “doormat status.” The question is – will this team buckle when matched up with the Rangers? Although the Isles currently sit ahead of the Rangers with 46 points in seventh place, a victory by the Blueshirts on Saturday would pull the Rangers even with the Isles on points with an extra game remaining.

Pitfall Could Follow For Loser Of Saturday’s Clash

There are potential pitfall scenarios for both teams – and that’s why winning Saturday’s meeting is paramount.

It’s entirely understandable why the Islanders’ recent run has been met with skepticism from some corners of the media and within segments of their own fan base. The Isles are rolling, but until this group actually qualifies for the playoffs, that skepticism will remain. Should the Rangers beat the Isles in their own building, it could knock wind out of the Isles’ sails and be the beginning of a fall from grace back into the doldrums of playofflessness.

By equal measure, the Rangers have their own doomsday scenario that could unfold should the Isles protect their home ice by winning on Saturday. Unlike the Isles, the Rangers still have two games remaining against familiar Atlantic Division rivals in the New Jersey Devils. Should Ilya Kovalchuk return from a shoulder soreness before April 21, both meetings with the Devils will complicate the Rangers’ road to locking up a playoff place.

Some have been quick to write off the Devils, but they’re only four points off eighth place and a victory over the Ottawa Senators on Friday would put the New Jersey right in the thick of the playoff race.

Stars On Display At The Coliseum On Saturday

Rick Nash on one side, John Tavares on the other. It’s a mouth-watering get-together of two of the league’s most explosive talents. Tavares’ 24 goals in 2013 only trails renowned snipers Alex Ovechkin (26) and Steven Stamkos (26) for the league lead.

Tavares has been the symbol of rebirth for the Islanders, though a lot of credit has to go to two veterans over the age of 36. Thirty-seven-year-old net-minder Evgeni Nabokov has been sharp in April, posting a 1.18 goals against average and a 4-0-1 record this month. The acquisition of hard-shooting defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky has given the Isles an extra dimension. Even though Visnovsky is stuck in a cold streak, his instincts and ability to quarterback a power play should never be overlooked.

In Toronto, we all saw how capable Rangers weapon Rick Nash is at taking over a game. Few players charge to the net with the ferocity and skill of Nash, whose imposing size, darting abilities and skilled hands can cause nightmares for any goalie.

Henrik Lundqvist has been at his best during the Rangers’ recent stretch. His heroics in the second game of a home-and-home against the Maple Leafs in regulation and in the Blueshirts’ shootout victory was further proof of Lundqvist’s ability to perform when the pressure is at its greatest.

Despite the abilities in net of Lundqvist and Nabokov, both Tavares and Nash are capable of trading goals with their game-breaking abilities. It would be fitting if both get on the scoresheet on Saturday night and one of the pair scores a game-winner that could catapult their team to a firmer grip on securing a playoff place.

Which team has the edge going into Saturday’s hugely important meeting on the Island — the Rangers or Isles?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.

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