By Sean Hartnett
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As the snow is being removed outside Nassau Coliseum, the “Battle of New York” is about to heat up. Tuesday will mark the first meeting this season between the Rangers and Islanders at the old barn in Uniondale.
While the league has yet to confirm that Tuesday’s game will go ahead as planned, the Rangers have confirmed that the game will be played as scheduled.
Their last meeting at Madison Square Garden ended with the Isles skating off the ice triumphantly following a one-sided 3-0 victory. That wasn’t before some late fireworks courtesy of Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle and Isles winger Cal Clutterbuck.
Clutterbuck appeared to swing and miss entirely. Boyle proceeded to punch Clutterbuck straight in the mouth.
“He swung and missed,” Boyle said. “I swung and got him. There was a late hit.”
After being outscored 9-3 in their two previous meetings at MSG, the 27-13-4 Rangers are fired up, and they have a point to prove. Captain Ryan McDonagh has had this game circled for some time. Following their pre-All-Star break comeback victory over the Ottawa Senators, McDonagh spoke of the importance of their next game against the Isles.
“That’s going to be a huge two points,” McDonagh said. “We have to be focused and ready. They play well there. I’m looking forward to it already.”
Their two lopsided losses to the Isles appear to be misleading. The Rangers were without top center Derek Stepan and Boyle in their first meeting on Oct. 14. Stepan sat out the majority of their Jan. 13 shutout defeat with an undisclosed upper-body injury.
The Rangers caught fire as the All-Star break approached, going an impressive 16-3-0. All-Star winger Rick Nash has played like a true Hart Trophy candidate, playing at a near point-per-game pace. The 6-foot-4 winger has collected 43 points (28 goals, 15 assists) in 44 games. Stepan has been a difference-maker, playing at above a point-per-game pace. The Rangers have struggled in his absence and flourished when their 24-year-old alternate captain is healthy. Stepan has recorded 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 31 games.
Now, it’s the first-place Isles’ chance to prove their mettle while one of their stars is sidelined. Isles head coach Jack Capuano announced Monday that an upper-body injury will force star winger Kyle Okposo to miss six to eight weeks.
Okposo was off to the best start of his career, notching 44 points (14 goals, 30 assists) through 46 games. The 26-year-old winger had collected seven points (five goals, two assists) over the past three games. The Isles’ forward depth has received a boost in the form of a healthy Mikhail Grabovski. On Monday, the two-way forward skated on the first line with captain John Tavares and left wing Josh Bailey. Capuano confirmed that Grabovski will make his return from a lower-body injury that has kept the 30-year-old forward out since Jan. 10.
Only five points separate the Isles and Rangers in a packed Metropolitan Division race. The Rangers have two games in hand and will look to continue their hot streak in the second half by serving revenge at the Coliseum.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.