|Rangers, Islanders rivalry heats up with playoff race|
NEW YORK -- A pair of local rivals will resume their frantic race for an Eastern Conference playoff berth Saturday afternoon, when the New York Rangers host the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden.
Both the Rangers and Islanders are coming off their five-day "bye week" and will be playing for the first time since Sunday, when the visiting Rangers fell to the Vegas Golden Knights, 2-1, while the host Islanders edged the New Jersey Devils, 5-4, in the shootout.
The results further tightened an already cramped race for the Eastern Conference wild card spots. The Rangers (22-15-5) have sole possession of the first wild card in the East, one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The win by the Islanders (21-18-4) snapped a five-game losing streak and left them two points behind the Hurricanes and three points behind the Rangers in the wild card races.
The game against the Islanders marks the first of three straight games against teams barely on the outside looking in of the wild card race for the Rangers, who will visit the Philadelphia Flyers (46 points) on Sunday before returning home to face the Pittsburgh Penguins (47 points).
"I think everybody understands we're facing playoff hockey right now," Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said following practice Friday afternoon.
The Islanders' recent skid put them in the same position, one they didn't expect to be in after entering December in second place in the Metropolitan Division.
But the Islanders will hope to carry over the momentum from Sunday, when they trailed by two goals in the third period before storming back to beat the Devils.
"You don't want to go into the break with five, six straight losses," said Islanders rookie defenseman Sebastian Aho, who scored his first career goal to begin the comeback before assisting on the game-tying score by Cal Clutterbuck. "You could feel it on the bench, everybody decided we're going to take this game."
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist is expected to oppose the Islanders' Jaroslav Halak in a battle of top net-minders. Lundqvist last played on Jan. 6, when he recorded 38 saves and earned the win in a 2-1 shootout victory over the host Arizona Coyotes. Halak notched the win Sunday, when he stopped 42 shots against the Devils.
The five-day break wasn't enough to restore either team to 100 percent, health-wise. Vigneault said Friday that center Kevin Hayes, who suffered a lower-body injury against the Golden Knights on Sunday, is not expected to play Saturday.
The Islanders will be even more undermanned. Head coach Doug Weight said Friday that center Josh Bailey (lower body), defenseman Johnny Boychuk (lower body) and left winger Andrew Ladd (undisclosed) will not play Saturday. Bailey and Ladd, each of whom were injured against the Penguins on Jan. 5, will miss a second straight game while Boychuk will be sidelined for a seventh consecutive contest.