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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

No time like the present for the Islanders to win a Stanley Cup

Jordan Eberle of the New York Islanders celebrates

Jordan Eberle of the New York Islanders celebrates after scoring a goal on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky of the Florida Panthers during the third period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round at Scotiabank Arena on August 4, 2020 in Toronto. Credit: Getty Images/Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo

It seems weird to be talking about an intra-region hockey rivalry on the cusp of a big series that will be contested in an entirely different country, but . . . let’s do it anyway!

Monday was a banner day for the Rangers, who in 2020 went from rebuilding to overachieving to qualifying for a playoff qualifier to one of the most improbable draft lottery victories in the history of draft lottery victories.

So: Add presumed No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere to the list of rising young Blueshirts and check your favorite sports book to see whether the Rangers have been installed yet as Stanley Cup favorites for 2024.

But that is the future. And as bright as it is for the area’s Manhattan-based NHL franchise, there is a more urgent matter at hand starting on Wednesday: the present.

That is where the Islanders come in.

This is not a zero-sum rivalry. It is better for the sport if both teams do well — the Devils, too —  and the Rangers’ fan base will be the area’s biggest for the foreseeable future regardless.

But it also is true that this is the Islanders’ time to shine, in both hockey and marketing terms. Win a Cup, and maybe win over new fans and potential UBS Arena ticket-buyers.

This is a win-now team with a win-now leadership team of 77-year-old, three-time Cup-winning GM Lou Lamoriello and 58-year-old Cup-winning coach in Barry Trotz.

That message was loud and clear last offseason, when Lamoriello re-signed unrestricted free agents Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson. The first two now are 30 and Nelson turns 29 in October.

The year before that, Josh Bailey re-signed. He is 30 now, too.

The team’s goaltenders are 34 and 32. Their tone-setting fourth line is 32, 31 and 29.

Of their top 14 point-scorers in the regular season, two were born more recently than 1994 — Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. On the contrary, the Islanders are neither too young nor too old. They are just right.

But that also means there is no time to waste. Last year, they were a pleasant surprise, advancing to the second round in their first year without John Tavares and with Trotz.

Anything less than that will be a disappointment, even if the Capitals are favorites in the teams’ first-round series.

The Islanders’ core should be back next season at an arena still to be determined, then for the opening of UBS in the autumn of 2021.

But if this group does not manage at least one deep run by 2022, that image gaining on them in the rearview mirror might well be Lafreniere and his friends.

“I think if you asked a lot of guys on our team, I don’t think there’s that pressure that we need to win now,” Eberle said Tuesday. “That being said, you look at our lineup and just the age factor, we have a lot of guys who are in the second half of their career, myself included, and we want to win now.

“There were a number of years early on in my career (with the Oilers) where we didn’t even really make the postseason. So these times for me have come not very often. So you want to take advantage of them, and this is one of those times.”

About 45 minutes later, when I presented the win-now premise to Trotz, the chill in the air could be felt Zooming in all the way from Ontario.

“No, not at all, that never even crossed my mind,” he said. “Actually, we look at our team as a team that’s still got some good young players that are growing and getting better. We’ve got some good solid veterans. It’s not that our window’s closing. Our window is in some ways opening.

“You look at last year, losing Johnny Tavares . . . that was a big hole that a lot of people said we were going to be down on the outs, if you will. And that hasn’t been the case. So I don’t see it the way you’re seeing it, I guess.”

Guess not.

New York Sports