NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — They are arguably two of the best teams in the NHL. One you would expect. The other, not so much.
But when the Rangers and the Islanders take the ice Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden for their second meeting of the season, the rivalry will be back front and center in the minds of New Yorkers.
It’s been a while since that’s been the case.
Long one of the fiercest rivalries in professional sports, let alone the NHL, the battle for New York City area bragging rights had lost a lot of its luster over the last two decades, mostly because the Islanders as a franchise had struggled, making just five postseason appearances since they were swept by the Rangers in the first round of the 1993-94 playoffs.
The Blueshirts went on to win their first Stanley Cup since 1940 that spring, while the Isles slipped into obscurity, plagued by ownership and financial problems that translated into a very poor product on the ice for the better part of 20 years.
In fact, the last time the Islanders won a playoff series was 1992-93, when they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference finals.
Things are different now.
A year after making the playoffs and pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games in the opening round, the Isles regressed last season, finishing just 34-37-11, good for 79 points and a ticket to watch the postseason.
But, as they say, good teams tend to take a step back before they move forward.
Clearly miffed by his own failures, long-embattled general manager Garth Snow went to work this past offseason, trading for and then signing long-term No. 1 goaltender Jaroslav Halak, signing veteran forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin and then added Stanley Cup-winning defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy in a pair of stunning trades. All those moves, when combined with the club’s home-grown talent a year older and more mature, sent a message to the NHL that the Isles were not to be taken lightly in 2014-15.
So far head coach Jack Capuano’s team has not disappointed, going 28-13-1. The Isles’ 57 points led the Metropolitan Division heading into play on Monday and was one behind conference leader Tampa Bay. After winning just 13 games at home all of last season, the Islanders have made the most of their final season at the old Nassau Coliseum, going 14-4 so far, including wins over powerhouses like the Penguins, Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks.
The Islanders will move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn at season’s end.
Tuesday’s game against the Rangers will mark the end of a season-high seven-game road trip for the Islanders. New York is 4-2 so far, highlighted by a dominant 5-2 win in Columbus on Saturday night.
Former No. 1 overall pick John Tavares has played his best hockey of the season of late, registering seven goals and 12 points over his last 10 games, pushing his season totals to 19 goals and 20 assists. Linemate Kyle Okposo has 37 points and young center Brock Nelson is second behind Tavares with 15 goals.
Among conference foes, only the Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs have scored more goals than the Islanders, who sport five skaters with at least 20 points.
Halak is on pace for the best season of his nine-year career, as he is 22-8-0 with a 2.29 goals-against average, .914 save percentage and three shutouts.
A season after making it to the Stanley Cup Final, it took head coach Alain Vigneault’s Rangers a while to find their footing. But over the last five weeks they have been by far the hottest team in the NHL, winning 13 of their last 14 games. The run has allowed the Blueshirts (24-11-4) to move within five points of the Islanders for the division lead.
The Rangers are coming off a flawless West Coast trip in which they beat the league-leading Anaheim Ducks, defending Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and perennially tough San Jose Sharks over a four-day span.
The key to the Blueshirts’ season has been the re-emergence of superstar winger Rick Nash. Long considered a bit enigmatic due to his tendency to disappear from the scoresheet for extended periods of time, the 30-year-old forward has arguably been the league’s best player this season. Nash’s 26 goals entering play Monday were tied for the NHL lead with Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars. Nash’s 41 points were tied for 11th.
Nash has been supported by emerging center Derick Brassard (33 points) and former Hart Trophy winner Martin St. Louis (32).
In net, Henrik Lundqvist has overcome a slow start to post a 20-8-3 record, stellar 2.26 GAA. .918 save percentage and five shutouts. Though he was snubbed for the All-Star game, Lundqvist, who won the Vezina Trophy during the 2011-12 season, has a .939 save percentage over his last 12 starts.
Powered by Lundqvist and a defense featuring studs Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle, the Rangers have allowed just 95 goals this season, tied with the Montreal Canadiens for fewest in the conference entering play Monday.
The Islanders won the first meeting between the teams, 6-3 at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 14. After Tuesday the teams will meet three more times, all on Long Island.
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