Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh is very aware of what lay ahead Monday night as the Rangers try to stop a three-game skid against the Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders.
"They're easy games to get up for," McDonagh said after the morning skate at the Nassau Coliseum. "They've put a lot of pressure on us and forced us into mistakes. Seems like whenever we mishandled the puck, or have a couple turnovers, that's where they get a lot of good looks, and they're really good around the front of the net, all the way through with their four lines. You've got to continue to back pressure all the way to the circles, their D are all good skaters. A good strategy would be to not allow the guys around the net to find loose pucks."
The Islanders, who have won four straight games, have outscored the Rangers, 13-4, and are four points ahead of the Blueshirts in the standings.
But McDonagh declined to say that it was critical for the Rangers (33-16-5, 71 points) to finish first in the tightly contested division.
"You just want to get in [the playoffs]," he said. "Once you have that goal accomplished, then you try to give yourself a good seeding and give yourself some home ice. It's tough in the first round. There's a sense of pride for sure, going with the ups and downs of the season, being able to come out on top at the end of the season. It's pretty tough, for sure. Ultimately that's not our main focus: It's to give ourselves a chance to win every night, so hopefully we get in the playoffs."
Head coach Alain Vigneault also declared that focusing on Monday night was the concept, not the peering into the future.
"We're not thinking about later in the year, we're thinking about one game," he said.
The previous three losses don't "really matter, at the end of the day, those games are behind us," he added.
One thing that remains the same, said Vigneault, is the atmosphere. "Every time we've been here, the fans are very passionate, both sides. This has been a great rivalry for a long time."
Rick Nash, with 35 goals on the season, behind Alex Ovechkin for No. 1 in the NHL, agreed.
"It's fun to see how much Rangers and Islanders fans get pumped up," Nash said.
Asked about the keys to a win, veteran Martin St. Louis, who is mired in a 15-game goal drought, responded: "Score more goals ... We've got to establish a forecheck. They've played well, maybe it's our turn."
Defenseman Dan Boyle, who missed Saturday's 5-1 win in Phoenix with stomach problems, skated in the morning, and wanted to see how he felt after a meal. Vigneault termed him a game-time decision. If Boyle cannot dress, John Moore and Matt Hunwick would be the third defensive pair. The Islanders were dressing the same lineup as their last game, with Jaroslav Halak in goal.
Jesper Fast, who sprained his right knee in Nashville on Feb. 7, had physical therapy in New York last week but is not close to skating. Fast, who was at Monday's skate, had the brace removed over the weekend and was limping. The initial estimate was that Fast would be out two to three weeks.
Starting Thursday, the Rangers will play three games in four nights, first hosting Vancouver, then traveling to Buffalo for a makeup game Friday, and hosting the Blue Jackets on Sunday. With Henrik Lundqvist (blood vessel injury) out, Cam Talbot, who is making his seventh straight start tonight, is expected to play all three games.