Stage set for Saturday as rivalry is renewed

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Earlier this week, after yet another Islanders win, Matt Moulson called the Islanders a “hot ticket” team. He wasn’t being literal, but he may as well have been, as tickets to Saturday’s anticipated game between the Islanders and Rangers have sold out online.

For a rivalry that has been lopsided and lackluster over the past few years, Saturday’s clash between division rivals is expected to upstage all others in recent memory.

An actual meaningful game between two teams that genuinely dislike each other will be played, one with a critical two points hanging in the balance and clear playoff implications on the line.

With eight wins in their last ten games, the surging Islanders find themselves in unfamiliar territory when they host the visiting Blueshirts at Nassau Coliseum: this weekend, THEY are the team to beat.

Led by superstar center John Tavares, the Isles enter the match in seventh place with 46 points, two points ahead of the Rangers. The Rangers can pass them with a regulation win, however, since they have a game in hand -- the first tie-breaker between teams with the same amount of points in the standings.

“It’s great for the rivalry,” said Rangers forward and ex-Islander Arron Asham. “It felt like the past few years -- just watching it, you know, the Rangers were always in it and the Islanders were at the bottom; it wasn’t those important games. We’re gonna see what they’re made of tomorrow. They’re playing great hockey, we’re starting to come into our own and it’s going to be a great battle.”

The Rangers are 2-0-1 heading into the clubs’ fourth and final meeting and hold a 5-3 edge in points gained during the series. With head-to-head being one of the tie-breakers to determine position in the standings, the Isles have a chance to pull even at five points with a regulation win.

But the Blueshirts are also showing signs of the success they achieved last season. A few trade deadline acquisitions have slotted in nicely to help re-establish the team’s blue-collar identity and reigning Vezina trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist has been terrific of late.

“It’s going to come down to who wants it more,” Lundqvist said.

Recent addition Ryane Clowe, acquired by the Rangers in a trade with San Jose the day before the trade deadline, is anxious to experience his first taste of the rivalry.

The Sharks didn’t have a clear-cut rival in the West; the nastiness between opponents varied each year, often predicated on who was playing well that season or any lingering bad blood from a previous post-season series.

“It’ll be exciting,” Clowe said. “I’ve heard the Islanders like to come out hard.”

John Tortorella, who loathes discussing opponents, claimed he doesn’t know much about the Isles -- “I haven’t paid too much attention to ‘em “ -- but you can be sure that the fiery coach will have his players well prepared before the puck drops.

And that will be a point of emphasis when the Rangers meet Saturday before the game -- matching the Islanders' intensity level and neutralizing their energetic starts.

“I think that’s their style,” Lundqvist said. “They come out with a lot of speed and we just have to match it. If you play smart, you can use that to your advantage.”

Beyond Tavares, who is pacing the club with 24 goals and 42 points, the team’s second line of Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo is playing well. Bailey, who notched a pair of goals in the Isles’ 2-1 win over the Bruins Thursday night, has seven points in the last six games, while Nielsen has six during that span.

“They’re playing some great hockey right now,” Asham said. “Their young stars are starting to bloom and play important minutes for them ... and they’re getting good goaltending. They’ve got a decent lineup. We can’t go in there thinking it’s the Islanders of the past. It’s a good hockey club.”

Having spent four seasons with the Islanders, Asham has seen both sides of the rivalry. And while the intensity has been lacking of late, the hostility between the two teams has not gone dormant.

“There’s still that hatred there,” Asham said. “It’s definitely going to be a great atmosphere tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.”