The New York Islanders and New York Rangers hold their third of five meetings this season, with each one increasingly looking like a battle for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
With 46 games in the books for both teams, the Eastern Conference already looks like the top four teams in each division will make the playoffs and
render any potential wild card "crossover" match unnecessary [EDIT: Apologies for the misunderstanding. As several pointed out, even if four teams from each division make the playoffs, teams 7 and 8 remain "wild cards" who can crossover if the records dictate. Hey, I'm new to this "playoffs" thing.]. The Isles are five points up on the Rangers, who have 58 points and two games in hand.
The Islanders signaled their claim to the rivalry and potentially the Metropolitan Division with convincing three-goal victories in both meetings at Madison Square Garden, including a 3-0 mauling earlier this month.
But tonight, in the first of three at Nassau Coliseum this year, the Isles will have to do it without first-line right wing Kyle Okposo.
Still, as garik16 wrote earlier today, the Isles should be able to withstand the loss of Okposo, in part because Mikhail Grabovski is returning to the lineup in his place. But we won't pretend that doesn't change the dynamic of that line, so it will be interesting to see how Grabovski fits back in.
At least to start the game, Grabovksi will slot in at left wing on the John Tavares line, pushing Josh Bailey over to the right side. Adjustments on both sides of Tavares' wing, but Grabovski has looked dangerous next to him when tried in late-and-trailing situations.
Capuano was asked about Grabovski in the morning scrum [mp3]:
"He's a puck possession kind of guy. He's got good speed. He's a guy who plays on the interior, which we like -- he's not a perimeter guy. I think he's excited, he's been out a little while."
On Okposo's injury:
"I had an idea a little before the break. It's a tough situation not just because he's a point-a-game guy, but for his leadership and character that he brings to the hockey club. But on the ice, other guys will get the opportunity to play more minutes, different situations, pick up their game."
Against the Rangers, is the key speed, hitting, what?
"Just not getting caught up in the emotions of the game. Stick to our game, our foundation."
No surprise for the rivalry and the return from break that Jaroslav Halak and Henrik Lundqvist are each starting in goal. The Rangers have Matt Hunwick instead of John Moore as their sixth defensemen and a few forwards possibly under the weather (plus the coach), reports Pat Leonard of the Daily News.
No matter. It's rivalry time:
Arniel, meanwhile, said the Rangers are eager to take on a team that has had their number this season.
"I think both teams are ready to go," Arniel said. "There’s not a lot of ‘like’ on each side."
As alluded to in that piece, it was tough going for the Rangers to commute to the Coliseum yesterday, and one can only speculate how many fans will be able to make the game given the significant-but-hardly-historic snow that initially put the game in doubt.
The Isles added both Okposo and Eric Boulton to IR today, but Lubomir Visnovsky remains out. He skated with the team, but for now Brian Strait remains in the lineup next to Thomas Hickey. Even if/when Visnovsky comes off IR, the Isles will have an extra spot in case they want to call up a different forward or defenseman from Bridgeport.
Speaking of defensemen: This is Dan Boyle's first visit to the Coliseum since his illustrious month spent as an Islander property. The number of free agents Garth Snow targeted over the summer is large, and one wonders whether the team would be this good if Boyle and Jarome Iginla had said, "Yes!" -- presumably preventing the ensuing signings of Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin and the trades for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy.
But those are what-ifs. Tonight is the what-now. Thus far, it's looked pretty damned good.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks here. Don't pick Okposo.