UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Ranger coach John Tortorella dismissed questions about the Islanders on Friday, but the Isles had no problem talking about their opponents or the upcoming clash against their division rivals.
And they’re not downplaying the importance of the marquee match-up -- one with New York bragging rights and, more importantly, playoff implications on the line.
“It’s always pretty crazy but we’re neck-and-neck in the standings and it’s been that way for a while now,” 22-year-old defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “At this point in the year, in my mind, there’s no bigger game.”
Two points ahead of the Rangers in seventh place in the East, the Islanders have the chance to pull four points ahead. A regulation loss, however, allows the Rangers to leapfrog them in the standings with a game in hand.
Regardless, the rivalry has intensified with both teams playing well.
“For sure,” said Kyle Okposo. “It makes both sides of fans more into the game. Everybody is going to be watching the New York area, so it will be good.”
Okposo and linemates Josh Bailey and Frans Nielsen have been setting the tone of late, as the Islanders have grabbed eight wins in the last 10 games. Bailey has seven points in the last six games; Nielsen has six during that span.
Coach Jack Capuano has employed the line against other team’s top units and will likely do the same Saturday against Rangers’ star winger Rick Nash.
Hamonic and defensive partner Andrew MacDonald will match up against that top line on defense.
Nash has five goals and 11 points in 12 career games against the Islanders.
“He’s so big. You see a lot of him and he maybe cuts down the far wing, drops the shoulder and cuts to the net maybe better than anyone else in the league,” Hamonic said. “He’s so good at puck protection. His stick is so long, too. You really have to try to play off his hips a little bit."
“You have to be aware, aware of his speed,” he continued. “You gotta know who you’re out against.”
The Rangers will have their hands full on defense as well, with both a productive second line and the Islanders’ top line, centered by star forward John Tavares.
Tavares is pacing the team with 24 goals and 42 points this season.
Tavares is looking forward to an Islanders-Rangers game that has a different feel than previous ones.
“I think there will be a lot of passion, a lot of intensity,” he said. “For me, I don’t see anything better than this in the league. It’s going to be a lot of fun and fans are a part of that as well.”