This Rangers-Islanders game is as high-stakes as it gets

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It is remarkable, honestly it is, how few meaningful games the Rangers and Islanders have played against one another over the last quarter of a century.

There hasn’t been a playoff series since the first-round sweep of 1994 in which the Blueshirts humiliated their overmatched opponents and a longtime foil in nets, Ron Hextall, by an aggregate 22-3 margin.

And it has been rare indeed in the interim for both teams to have been good at the same time. Indeed, they’ve both been in the playoffs only four times over the last 25 seasons. And never in the 49 years the clubs have uneasily coexisted 35 miles apart has there been a head-to-head battle for a postseason berth this late in the regular season.

Until now.

Until this unique season gave us this.

Gave us this confrontation for a playoff spot.

Gave us this gift.  

Technically it is not necessarily one or the other, because the Bruins are in the mix. But one would have to go into contortions to figure a way for both the Rangers and Islanders to get invites to the tournament.

The Islanders have the math all on their side as this home-and-home commences at the Garden on Thursday to be followed by Saturday’s confrontation at the Coliseum. The Rangers are actually a bit farther back in the rearview mirror than they might appear when factoring in the game in hand they are giving away.

But still, with six games to go for the revived Rangers and seven for the enervated Islanders, who lead the Blueshirts by five points in the standings, this represents as high-stakes a singular installment of the Battle of New York as we have had in the regular season since the beginning of time.

Hockey-Reference gives the Rangers a 9.4-percent chance of making the playoffs. But do the odds take into account how the Islanders are wheezing down the stretch at almost the same relative time they did last season? Do the odds take into account that the Islanders had won only three games in regulation out of their last 17 since Mar. 20?

Do the odds take into account that the Islanders had won merely one game in regulation out of their last 10?

Well, since that one regulation victory came just over a week ago on Apr. 20 at the Coliseum against the Rangers, maybe the odds do take that into account (but of course they do not, because odds are never humanized).

In 11 of their last 12 games, the Islanders have scored a sum of 13 goals. The outstanding game — in more ways than one — was the one against the Rangers. The 6-1 victory against the Rangers, that is.

The Islanders stopped scoring late last season while going winless in their last seven games (0-3-4) following the trade deadline while winning only two of their final 13 (2-7-4) before the pandemic shut down the regular season. Given a pause to refresh, the Islanders rode their brand of playoff hockey to the conference finals, where they extended the eventual Cup champion Lightning to overtime of Game 6.

There is a reward to be gained in the postseason for playing a postseason brand before the tournament begins. But just as surely, there is a price to be paid for paying the price every night during the regular season, even in a 56-game schedule as this one. Maybe even more this time around, given the condensed schedule that allows less time to heal.

Matt Barzal, purveyor of brilliance, has not scored over the last dozen games. Brock Nelson has one goal in the last nine, Josh Bailey has two over his last 10 and Jordan Eberle has one goal in his last nine games. By the way? The goals scored by Nelson, Bailey and Eberle all came in the Apr. 20 humbling of the Blueshirts. Is there a need to mention that trade deadline acquisitions Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac have chipped in with one goal apiece?

If the Islanders pay a price for their relentless grind, the Rangers have paid a price for their inability or unwillingness to adapt their high-end skill game to the demands of playoff-style hockey. Specifically, recently and memorably, the price was 6-1.

The Rangers won a pair of big games against the Islanders last winter. They are 2-3-1 in six meetings this year. But the big guns who define the team have been muted. Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, Ryan Strome and Chris Kreider have combined for one goal over the last four meetings. That was an empty-netter from Zibanejad.

The onus is on the Rangers. But the Islanders are hardly scot-free. Nothing is assured. Everything is on the line.

 It is the Battle of New York and it is to be savored.             

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