Part of what makes the Islanders-Rangers rivalry different is the proximity of the opposing fans.
“I rarely get recognized” by people on the street, Islanders defenseman Jack Hillen admitted. “But when we get out to give a speech or visit a hospital or school, we get, ‘Thanks for coming; I’m a Ranger fan.' "
Forward Kyle Okposo, winding down from practice in the locker next to Hillen, agreed. “If they do recognize you, the first thing you hear is, ‘Hey, I’m a Ranger fan.’
“Oh. Nice to meet you.”
“I always laugh,” Hillen said, “to see the fights in the stands.”
The teams resume their old Change-at-Jamaica series at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, with the Rangers (31-32-9) clinging to the slightest hope of a playoff berth and the Islanders (29-33-10) staring at almost inevitable mathematical elimination from the post-season.
Still, Islanders coach Scott Gordon said, every Islanders-Rangers scuffle is “a great atmosphere to be a part of. Once you get a taste of it, you wish there were six more games against them on the schedule.”
Okposo, a Minnesota native, said that “before I played here, I didn’t know too much about [the rivalry]. Obviously, I’ve learned to love it. It’s just fun. The energy of the fans gets down to the players. You don’t see a Rangers-Islanders game that’s ever lackluster.”
Speaking of not being lackluster: Gordon praised No. 1 pick John Tavares for his ability to have worked through a long scoring slump to become “a more efficient player than at the beginning of the year when he was getting the points.”
Tavares’ five-point game against Vancouver last week was only the outward manifestation of what Gordon has seen. “It’s been such a frustrating second half for him offensively,” Gordon said. “I told him that it’s not about his work ethic. It’s finding ways to work more efficiently, to be more assertive on the puck.
“Prior to the Olympic break, after every shift, he was beating himself up, beating his stick on the ice. But you can’t just will the puck in. You have to relax. It’s like in golf, when you start squeezing the club too tight.
“All the frustration he had he probably hadn’t had to go through in his whole life. He had to start playing relaxed. He’s not getting as rattled now. He looks like he’s enjoying the game more.”
Goalie Martin Biron, who missed the last two days of practice to be with his wife in Buffalo as the couple expected the birth of their fourth child, will be on the bench for Wednesday night’s game to back up Dwayne Roloson. For Tuesday’s practice, the team’s goalie coach, former Islander Mike Dunham, worked in the goal opposite Roloson.