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NEW YORK (Reuters) - From Metropolitan Division doormats to top of the Eastern Conference, the New York Islanders are riding high after shutting out the crosstown rival New York Rangers in a showdown at Madison Square Garden.
Adding a capable goaltender, strengthening the defense and stressing fundamentals has helped the surprising renew hopes for a franchise that dominated the NHL with a run of four straight Stanley Cups from 1980.
Long gone are the glory days of Hall of Famers Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies and Billy Smith. Short on star power, these Islanders are long on team play.
"We said from the beginning of the year, you have to make a commitment to defense, you got to make a commitment to play away from the puck," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said after Tuesday's 3-0 win gave them a one-point lead in the East.
"It’s a defense first mentality and that’s not going to change. You want to make sure that you protect the middle of the ice. We stress it all year long that our goaltending will give us a chance if we do that."
Jaroslav Halak, who split last season between Washington and St. Louis before replacing the Isles' ineffective Evgeni Nabokov, made 27 saves for his fourth shutout of the season.
It was the first time the Islanders, in the playoffs once in the last seven years, blanked the host Rangers at the Garden since Smith did it by the same score 40 years ago.
"It’s a big game, big rivalry for our team," Halak said.
The Czech goalie has been helped by new defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, while the offense has benefited from free agents Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin.
"Everybody’s contributing to our team, from our fourth line to our first line," Boychuk said. "Good hits, good hard work, good skill and good speed. Combine that all in one and that’s our team."
The Rangers had been red-hot, winning 13 of 14 and were coming off a three-game California sweep.
"We got outskated, outbattled in our zone, said Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh. "We were the slower team."
Last year's Stanley Cup runners-up slipped to 24-11-4, fourth in the division.
Top scorer John Tavares typified the Islanders attitude. "We expect to win," he said. "We know we can be good if we play at the level that we can."
Editing by Frank Pingue