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As Islanders-Rangers games go, this is a big one

Mikhail Grabovski #84 of the New York Islanders

Mikhail Grabovski #84 of the New York Islanders flies past Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers during the third period at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 14, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

There have been bigger games in this rivalry. Games with more meaning, even more anticipation. But rarely, if ever, have the Islanders and Rangers met with both teams going so well and with each having a legitimate chance to take two points and keep moving toward the top of the Eastern Conference.

"They're the hottest team in the league right now," Jack Capuano said of the Rangers, winners of 13 of their last 14 games. "We like the underdog role we've got going in."

Not so fast, Coach. The Islanders (28-13-1) are the ones at the top of the Metropolitan Division, five points clear of the Rangers (24-11-4), though the Rangers have three game in hand.

The Islanders have been the ones with the more consistent first half of the season, which makes Tuesday night's game at Madison Square Garden all the more special for the players who have suffered through five, six or seven seasons of playing the underdog/spoiler role against the Rangers.

"We're excited and I'm sure fans on both sides are excited too," Frans Nielsen said. "I think we feel a little happier for this game than in some earlier years."

The Islanders last visited the Garden at least 15 games over .500 on March 29, 1982, when they were in the heart of the dynasty years. They are 15-13-2 at the Garden since the 2004-05 lockout and have won four of their last six visits, including a 6-3 win there on Oct. 14.

And in the rare seasons during the past decade when the Islanders have had their own success to be proud of, a win at the Garden has played a role. The game on Feb. 14, 2013, stands out: Having lost five straight games, the Isles trailed 2-0 after a period. They rallied with three straight goals in the second and won in a shootout, beginning a season-ending 20-10-6 streak that put them in the playoffs.

There also were some lows, such as the 1-2 punch of losing to the Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 29 last year, then again at the Garden two nights later to essentially end their dim playoff hopes.

"We were trying to climb back in it and they knocked us down with those two," Kyle Okposo said.

Okposo said he's looking forward to the usual fair complement of Islanders fans at the Garden Tuesday night. "Especially during warmups, you can see and hear them," he said. "When we score, there'll probably be a few 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' chants. Hopefully we get to hear that a few times."

There will be three more meetings between the teams after Tuesday night, all at Nassau Coliseum, where "it's basically chaos," according to Okposo. Both teams are playing so well that with the divisional-weighted playoff format, it isn't far-fetched to say the two could meet in a postseason series for the first time since 1994.

"I always dreamed about playing them in the playoffs," Nielsen said. "We want to go far this year. It would be fun if we had to go through them at some point."

That's down the road, though. It's not just bragging rights anymore. This game means something to two teams that plan to play meaningful games straight through until spring.

Notes & quotes: Mikhail Grabovski (lower body) did not practice and won't play Tuesday night. He is still day-to-day. Lubomir Visnovsky (upper body) still is on injured reserve.

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