Ever since the New York Islanders got off to a hot start that legitimized their offseason moves and made 2014-15 quickly look like a fitting way to see off Nassau Coliseum, there has been another "fitting" idea hanging in the back of New York hockey fans' brains: Resuming the old derby wars for real, where the Islanders and Rangers fought for more than just local bragging rights.
And so it has commenced, at least through the first half of the season. The Islanders have rarely slowed down since beginning 4-0. The Rangers have made up for an injury-hindered slow start to surge to wins in 13 of their last 14 games. They enter tonight's contest separated by five points, with the Islanders (again, fittingly) in first place.
By the full-season possession stats, the Isles remain at about the top of the league, while the Rangers remain around mid-table. But good overall play and hot special teams have helped turbocharge the Rangers' incredible last month of results.
Still, when healthy their base game is similar to the Islanders: Speed, depth, and more speed. That should make tonight, the last regular season meeting at 2014-15 at Madison Square Garden, an outstanding contest.
In the previous meeting, a 6-3 Islanders win last October that emptied the Garden as Isles fans chanted, the Smurfs were without Derek Stepan and Dan Boyle. The Islanders took advantage of a couple of mistakes by Mike Kostka to turn the game around.
This time out, it's the Islanders missing key fixtures up front and on the blueline: Mikhail Grabovski and Lubomir Visnovsky, who are both still day-to-day.
Coach Jack Capuano discussed those notes -- and the same lineup that won in Columbus, except with Jaroslav Halak in goal -- in the mid-day scrum [mp3], including:
They're a different team then when we beat them here last time. They’re healthy now. They’re playing with a lot of confidence.after they got off to a bit of a slow start. They have that swagger now. ... They're the hottest team in the league.
How delightful, then, would it be to pour water on that heat with another win at the Garden?
Certainly for fans, who are the ones who make this team big.
Capuano skimmed past all questions about "statement game" and "bragging rights" and the usual things that sell papers, fuel social media, and create angst and taunts among the fans. For both hockey teams from New York, they know there are about 40 more games to go, give or take.
And that's perhaps what's finest about the current state of this rivalry and what it promises tonight, in three more meetings at the Coliseum between the end of this month and March, and who knows what might come in April or May: There are no sideshow Avery clowns, no cementheads, no one-trick goons infusing blood or hate into a void left by the standings.
Instead, the 2015 version of the Battle of New York brings two fast, entertaining teams, with history and rivalry in their minds but actual talent in their lineups from top to bottom.
Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Martin St. Louis
Rick Nash - Derick Brassard - Mats Zuccarello
Carl Hagelin - Kevin Hayes - Jesper Fast
J.T. Miller - Dominic Moore - Lee Stempniak
Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Dan Boyle
John Moore - Kevin Klein
* * *
Josh Bailey - John Tavares - Kyle Okposo
Anders Lee - Frans Nielsen - Ryan Strome
Michael Grabner - Brock Nelson - Nikolay Kulemin
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Cal Clutterbuck
Nick Leddy - Johnny Boychuk
Calvin de Haan - Travis Hamonic
Thomas Hickey - Brian Strait
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks here. Don't pick Lubo :(.