NEW YORK -- Neither the New York Islanders nor New York Rangers seemed to be candidates to liven up a bleak-looking fall and winter for Big Apple sports. But now Islanders-Rangers games might be the only compelling theater in New York until baseball season starts.
A pair of teams in the midst of surprisingly solid starts will square off for the first time this season Thursday night, when the Islanders host the Rangers at Barclays Center.
Both squads beat the visiting Vancouver Canucks in their previous games. The Rangers extended their point streak to seven games Monday, when they beat the Canucks 2-1. The Islanders then snapped a three-game losing streak Tuesday by knocking off Vancouver 5-2.
The wins left the longtime rivals tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division -- a far different spot than most would have forecast for the duo after last season, when the seventh-place Islanders and eighth-place Rangers were separated by three points as they brought up the rear in the Metro.
The Rangers embarked upon a rebuilding plan when they dealt several veterans at the February trade deadline and hired rookie head coach David Quinn in May.
The Islanders, who hired reigning Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz as head coach in June, appeared to be following suit in July, when star center John Tavares left as a free agent for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Instead, the Islanders (9-6-2) and Rangers (9-7-2) may be playing for a share of first place Thursday night. A win by either team and a regulation loss by the Columbus Blue Jackets against the Florida Panthers will create a tie atop the division.
It's early, of course, but an Islanders-Rangers game that matters offers some unexpected excitement on an otherwise barren New York sports landscape. The third NHL team in the tri-state area, the New Jersey Devils, have lost nine of 12 and have the fewest points in the Eastern Conference. The NFL's Giants and Jets are a combined 5-15 and vying for top-five draft picks while the NBA's Knicks and Nets are a combined 10-20.
Plus, Islanders-Rangers games have been notoriously combative, both on the ice and in the stands, since the Islanders joined the NHL in 1972. The Rangers have earned three more wins (125-122) over the Islanders and hold a narrow 878-861 lead in goals scored
"We've talked about it a little bit but you hear more from the outside," first-year Islanders winger Tom Kuhnhackl told reporters following practice Wednesday. "You hear about the rivalry. It's something special. I'm excited."
The Islanders have dominated the series the last three seasons. They have won the last seven games in the series and are 11-1-0 against the Rangers since moving to Barclays Center, where they have never lost to the Blueshirts.
"I think, so far, obviously, the record doesn't lie," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist told reporters following practice Wednesday. "They've been better than us at the Barclays Center, so we've got to do what we can to turn that around. They always come out hard and play with confidence and we'll match that."
Lundqvist and Thomas Greiss, each of whom earned the win over the Canucks earlier this week, are expected to face each other in a battle of number one goalies Thursday night. Lundqvist made 25 saves against Vancouver on Monday, when he recorded the 437th victory of his career to move into a tie for seventh-place on the NHL's all-time wins list with Jacques Plante. Greiss made 22 saves Tuesday.
Lundqvist is 30-20-7 in 59 career appearances against the Islanders. Greiss is 3-0-1 in five games against the Rangers.