Islanders-Rangers matchup as big as it gets

Brad Boyes of the Islanders collides with Taylor Brad Boyes of the Islanders collides with Taylor Pyatt of Rangers in the first period. (March 7, 2013) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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The players and coaches are mostly denying the importance of Saturday night's game between the Rangers and Islanders, at least as far as both teams go.

There's no denying that Nassau Coliseum, a place that has had more empty seats and more neglect than any other hockey arena in North America the last two decades, once again will be a destination.

"I'm sure it'll be the loudest it's been since I've been there,'' Matt Martin said. "It's going to be a good, physical game, the crowd will be intense. We're ready for the battle.''

In the long, emotional history of Rangers vs. Islanders -- 243 games in the regular season, 106 won by the Islanders -- there may never have been a game with the impact of Saturday night's.

There have been games that decided playoff fates for the team from Uniondale or the team from Manhattan -- Wade Dubielewicz started his impressive run at the end of 2006-07 with a 3-2 shootout win over the already clinched Rangers, and the Isles climbed into playoff position with a 4-2 win over the already clinched Rangers on April 10, 1994 -- but perhaps never with both having so much at stake.

Islanders coach Jack Capuano and Rangers coach John Tortorella have tried to downplay the significance of the big battle to come. Capuano likely was wary of more chatter leading up to the game and decided to give his players Friday off.

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"We're trying to keep all the hype outside of this room,'' Travis Hamonic said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere, and I think it'll be great for our fans to have a game like this. But we're staying focused on what we need to accomplish, which is getting to the playoffs and not getting caught up in Rangers-Islanders.''

That's best left to a couple of current Rangers who played through some bygone Isles-Rangers games of yore.

"It's huge for them; they're playing some great hockey right now,'' said Arron Asham, who was on the last three Isles playoff teams and still lives on Long Island. "Their young stars are starting to bloom and play important minutes for them. They're doing their job and getting some good goaltending. They're not thinking of the Islanders of the past.''

"When you get to play on both sides, I can tell you that the energy enhances the whole atmosphere, because there's a response from the fans, positive or negative, for every play,'' said Martin Biron, who was with the Isles in 2009-10 before signing with the Rangers.

Considering the Islanders have a five-season playoff drought, Saturday night may be bigger for them. But the Rangers could be in danger of missing the playoffs with a regulation loss Saturday night, just a season after coming within two wins of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.

But the links to the past are all elsewhere. Frans Nielsen played 15 games as a rookie in 2006-07, but none in the opening-round loss to the Sabres. Rick DiPietro is toiling in Bridgeport. Radek Martinek was on that squad, but limited by injury.

So none of the current Islanders has played a playoff game for the organization. That could lead to some out-of-control excitement for the players in such a crucial game. But their 8-1-1 streak to get the Isles into good playoff position has shown their poise in crunch time.

"It's the Rangers, I know, but for us it's the two points,'' said 37-year-old Evgeni Nabokov, the oldest and wisest Islander. "It's the biggest game because it's the next game; after that, Florida [on Tuesday] will be the biggest. Rangers are playing well, so we have to be ready, no question.''

Asham lamented his times as an Islander when the Coliseum seemed to have more Rangers fans than Islanders fans for the matchup, especially after the 2004-05 lockout, when the Rangers became the more consistent team. But now he's eager to see what his old team and his old fans will do in such a unique event.

"I think it's great for the rivalry, not like the last few years, just watching it, when it seemed like the Rangers were always in it and the Islanders were not,'' Asham said. "We're going to see what they're made of [Saturday night]. We're starting to come into our own, and it's going to be a great battle.'' With Steve Zipay

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