The Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division playoff picture can still shake out a number of ways, but one thing that is certain barring a meteor is that for Metro teams there is only one non-Washington home ice spot available.
The Capitals have been running away with the division since Thanksgiving, so battles like tonight's Islanders-Rangers classic are huge in determining who gets to host the other first-round series. For a while it has looked like the two city rivals are destined to meet in the first round, though Pittsburgh or another unlikely surging Metro team could have something to say about that.
Regardless of what shakes out in third place or the wild card spots, both teams need these points to keep their home ice hopes on track. The Islanders are five points (77) behind the Rangers (82) but have three games in hand. The Penguins are three points (74) behind the Isles but have played two more games (64); Pittsburgh faces the Islanders and Rangers two more times each this month, plus a third game against the Isles on April 2.
In the tiebreaker column, the Rangers have 35 ROW (regulation + overtime wins) to the Isles' 31, so the Isles certainly want to win this, and win it before it reaches a low-speed breakaway drill, in order to keep on pace with the ground they could make up with their games in hand.
Islanders (35-20-7, 3rd/Metro) @ Rangers (38-21-6, 2nd/Metro)
5 p.m. EST | MSG/+2 (twice the plus!), WNYE 91.5 FM, WRHU 88.7 FM, LI NEWS 103.9 FM
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The Rangers are without Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal due to short-term injuries. That means Antti Raanta, who backstopped their big win over the Capitals with 32 saves, starts again.
The Islanders did not have a formal morning skate, with only extras and injured skating. So they will be without Calvin de Haan, and it sounds like Ryan Pulock will sit and Jaroslav Halak will start based upon who skated this morning.
#Isles extras skating. Bernier, Boulton; Grabovski trying to get healthy. Pulock here, guess he's out. Berube & Greiss; guess Halak starts.— Brett Cyrgalis (@BrettCyrgalis) March 6, 2016
That means both Brian Strait and Marek Zidlicky would slot back into the lineup.
The Isles won both previous meetings this season, both in Brooklyn, both very close, and one via shootout. A good power play and perfect penalty kill helped tip the balance in those two.
They'll meet one more time in the regular season, April 7, when the Isles will have just two more games remaining and the Rangers one.
So, yes, March and April are shaping up to be great previews for the postseason.
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