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Rangers’ Mats Zuccarello looks forward to ‘big game’ versus Isles

New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal skates with

New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal skates with the puck defended by New York Rangers right wing Mats Zuccarello during the third period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, January 13, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — With just two games to play, Mats Zuccarello could simply have shut it down. The 5-8, 179-pound forward had blocked one too many shots last weekend and was too sore to play in the Rangers’ 5-2 loss to the Devils on Tuesday.

But Monday’s MRI showed nothing was broken, so Zuccarello was back at practice Wednesday preparing to play for the Rangers in what he called “a big game’’ Thursday in Brooklyn against the rival Islanders.

“I know we’ve got the two games left in the season, it’d be nice to finish off in a good way,’’ Zuccarello said. “It’s a big game for us tomorrow, against the Islanders. I’m sure they feel the same way, so it’s going to be — even though it’s two teams playing for nothing — it’s going to be, in my opinion, a good game.’’

There is nothing at stake for the two teams, other than avoiding last place in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers are in seventh place, with a 34-37-9 record, good for 77 points; the Islanders are one point behind, with a 33-37-10 record through 80 games.

But in Zuccarello’s mind, there is pride on the line. The Islanders have beaten the Rangers in every game this season. And the Rangers have never won a game in Brooklyn since the Isles moved there at the start of the 2015-16 season.

“I know,’’ Zuccarello said. “It’s got to be tomorrow. We’ve got one last chance here (this season) and we want to finish off in a good way.’’

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault didn’t want to attach too much importance to the rivalry. It’s important to win every game, he said.

“Whether it’s the Devils, whether it’s the Islanders, you go out there and you’ve got to give it your best to try and win the game,’’ Vigneault said. “Obviously, we haven’t had a lot of success against the Islanders. It’d be good for us to change that, and we’re getting an opportunity tomorrow to do that.’’

Asked why he thinks the Islanders have had such mastery over the Rangers in Brooklyn, Vigneault had no answer — other than to praise the work of Islanders’ goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who is 3-0 versus the Rangers this season, with a 1.62 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage.

“I’m not quite sure why, so far, (Halak) seems to have had our number, but we’ve got one more opportunity tomorrow,’’ he said.

Notes & quotes: Ondrej Pavelec will start in goal, Vigneault said, and Henrik Lundqvist will play in Philadelphia in the season finale Saturday . . . Cody McLeod, who left pregame warmups Tuesday in Newark due to abdominal pain and went to the hospital, checked out OK, Vigneault said. He has an abdominal strain and is not available for Thursday’s game.

New York Sports