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Eric Staal set for first taste of Rangers-Islanders rivalry

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Eric Staal already makes his presence felt as the newest member of the Rangers.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Eric Staal already makes his presence felt as the newest member of the Rangers.

Give New York what it wants, Rangers and Islanders. Give the Big Apple your first playoff series since the Blueshirts’ first-round 1994 sweep by a score of 22-3.

Did anything else happen that spring?

Sunday afternoon’s first Isles visit of the season to the Garden and their first as Brooklyners could preview a nasty, ill-willed first-round series that likely would open with Game 1 on April 13 on this same Manhattan ice if the season ended today.

The Islanders’ Cal Cluckerbuck – er sorry, Cal Clutterbuck – hasn’t forgotten Rangers agitator Tanner Glass called him chicken while flapping his arms at Barclays’ Center in a 3-1 Isles win in their last meeting Jan. 17.

The Rangers (38-21-6, 82 points), the second seed in the Metropolitan Division, are 0-1-1 head-to-head so far against the third-place Islanders (35-20-7, 77 points) and intend to pay back the Isles Sunday and on April 7 at the Garden for a winless series that opened with a crackling 2-1 shootout loss in Brooklyn Dec. 2.

Trade deadline acquisition Eric Staal will be the latest newbie indoctrinated to one of sports’ best rivalries in Sunday’s 5 p.m. start, and if his first Rangers-Isles match is anything like Friday night’s 3-2 win over the league-leading Capitals in Washington, Staal can’t wait.

“This was one of those games that was competitive and hungry and fun to be a part of,” Staal, who weathered constant losing in the second half of his 12-year stretch in Carolina, said after a win in D.C. that was ripe with playoff implication and intensity. “It’s a big win for the guys and we have another big one coming on Sunday.”

Staal had his most effective game in his third appearance as a Ranger since last Sunday’s trade. He skated better, played physically and was trusted by Alain Vigneault with eight third-period shifts to protect the one-goal lead. Left wing Viktor Stalberg’s continued powerful play helped Staal in his third straight start at center.

Tanner Glass and Cal Clutterbuck exchange words during Jan. 14 showdown in Brooklyn.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Tanner Glass and Cal Clutterbuck exchange words during Jan. 14 showdown in Brooklyn.

“I wanna be on the ice as much as I can,” Staal of his third-period role. “Every player will say the same thing. I’m getting more comfortable every shift … Our composure was real good … We fought hard.”

The Rangers “won a ton of battles,” as Dan Girardi said, against a “stacked” Capitals team. J.T. Miller comes to mind at the forefront of their relentless effort. But they would “rather defend (with a lead) by playing in the offensive zone.”

Instead they did not get up ice after defensive-zone clears, the Capitals tilted the ice, and the Blueshirts had just four shots on goal in the third period after putting only five on net in Thursday’s third while trailing the Penguins in a 4-1 loss.

“When you’re battling for 30-40 seconds and you get it out, it’s hard to get on the forecheck,” Girardi said.

Fortunately, while Henrik Lundqvist (neck spasms, day-to-day) seems doubtful to play Sunday, backup Antti Raanta was in high spirits following the 32-save victory in D.C. Raanta “felt confident” and cracked a joke about how long the Caps-dominated third period felt.

“Well, it was 20 minutes,” the Finnish netminder said with a smile. “I think it was 20 minutes.”

Lundqvist, due to be reevaluated on an off-day Saturday, walked out of Verizon Center normally Friday night, but the Rangers will not rush him with Raanta making 93 saves on 98 shots in winning his last three starts.

The Islanders have gotten the better of the rivalry this season, but teams have yet to play at MSG.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Islanders have gotten the better of the rivalry this season, but teams have yet to play at MSG.

Still, Lundqvist has allowed two or fewer goals in 14 of his last 19 starts. He is the primary reason the Rangers are 19-9-2 in their last 30, 15-6-1 in their last 22, and 11-3-1 in their last 14. In those 14 games, while they have surrendered four or more goals in each of their four losses (19 goals against), the gritty Blueshirts have allowed a staggering total of only 14 goals in the 11 wins.

The Rangers also are 10-0-0 in their last 10 games following a regulation loss since Dec. 22, the longest such streak in one season in franchise history.

Keith Yandle is playing by far his best hockey as a Ranger. Rookie defenseman Dylan McIlrath, who hopefully gets the nod from Vigneault on Sunday, for some reason continues to be scratched in favor of Dan Boyle. But the coach has made clear he will ride the veteran out the rest of the year, for better or worse.

Regardless, the Rangers keep winning and growing more confident.

Derick Brassard, who grabbed an assist Friday but has had consecutive bad games, dared critics to pick against the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup after GM Jeff Gorton made the Staal trade. Girardi said Friday’s win over the Caps gave the Blueshirts “a feeling in this room that we can beat” the NHL’s top team.

It’s all building not only toward a must-see game on Sunday but, hopefully, a Rangers-Isles series this spring.

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