With their top line apparently back on track, the New York Islanders are feeling pretty good about themselves. They'll likely need to remain on top of their game with their biggest rival up next.
Evgeni Nabokov makes his long-awaited Islanders debut Saturday night when the Islanders host the New York Rangers looking for a third straight victory.
Nabokov is making his return to the NHL after playing part of last season in Russia's KHL. After being released by SKA St. Petersburg, he had hoped to be back in North America when he signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings in January.
The NHL's collective bargaining agreement states that anyone who plays in a professional league before signing an NHL contract must clear waivers. So before he played for Detroit, he was plucked off the waiver wire by the Islanders (2-1-0).
Once claimed, Nabokov refused to report, saying he preferred to stay home on the West Coast instead of going to a noncontending team such as the Islanders.
During the summer, the Isles held over Nabokov's contract, meaning he was still bound to them for this season. Nabokov came to training camp and is now part of a crowded goalie mix with Al Montoya and the currently injured Rick DiPietro.
While Nabokov will start Saturday - he's 4-3-0 with a 2.40 goals-against average lifetime against the Rangers - it may be tough to unseat Montoya as the starter. The one-time Rangers first-round pick has a 1.35 GAA through three games, and made 34 saves in Thursday's 5-1 win over Tampa Bay.
Center John Tavares, scoreless in his first two games, had two goals and two assists.
"We were hungry out there," Tavares said. "It was only two games but it's always nice to break the ice and get a positive feeling and get rewarded."
The Islanders are expecting a big third season from Tavares, who set career highs with 29 goals and 38 assists in 2010-11.
"The sky is the limit for this guy," winger P.A. Parenteau said. "He's a great player. He's got tremendous hands, a great shot. He's fun to play with."
Tavares had one goal and seven assists in five games against the Rangers last season.
The Rangers (0-0-2) won four of six against the Islanders in 2010-11, with both losses coming on Long Island. The Rangers also are quite aware that this season's Islanders club has high expectations of making the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
"It looks like the Islanders are going to have a pretty good team this year," goaltender Henrik Lundqvist told the Rangers' official website. "I love that feeling, going into that building to play. I want to win even more."
Facing a rival is not the only reason the Rangers might be overly amped to hit the ice Saturday, as this will be their first game on North American soil after a pair of losses in Stockholm. They fell 3-2 in overtime to Los Angeles on Oct. 7 and 2-1 in a shootout against Anaheim last Saturday.
"It's good to get back into the games this weekend, we've been getting antsy," forward Brandon Prust said.
Lundqvist, who started both games in his native country, has a 2.56 GAA while winning five of his last seven starts against the Islanders. However, he yielded nine goals while dropping both starts on Long Island in 2010-11.
Brad Richards has a goal and an assist in his first two games with the Rangers after spending the last three-plus seasons in Dallas. He has a goal with three assists in his last two against the Islanders.