Over the last two decades, Islanders fans haven’t had much of a chance to sit back and ponder who their team could potentially match up with in the postseason. Making the playoffs only five times since 1995, the Isles had to scratch and claw their way to two of those Stanley Cup Playoff appearances, but such a scenario seems unlikely to repeat this season.
With the Islanders currently sitting in the third spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and the New York Rangers only four points behind in the sixth spot, fans have undoubtedly wondered if the two cross-town rivals could wind up meeting in the postseason. Having won the first three regular season contests against the Rangers, Isles fans might have some added confidence in their team if such a situation were to arise, but one has to wonder if a rivalry match-up is what the Islanders need going into the playoffs.
Of course, a conversation about the best possible playoff opponent for the Islanders could be debated to no end, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a look at how the Isles would stack up against their rivals in the postseason.
Whether talking about offense or defense, the Islanders largely improved their skating depth during the 2014 offseason by acquiring Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. Slotting in the four aforementioned players into their respective roles, New York has rounded out its offensive and defensive depth – and it has created a noticeable difference between Islanders teams of years past.
Having their first through fourth lines contributing on a consistent basis, the Islanders are no longer a one-line team depending on John Tavares’ scoring touch to get them through the bulk of the regular season. Add in the fact that Leddy and Boychuk have let Travis Hamonic, Lubomir Visnovsky, Calvin de Haan, and Thomas Hickey slide into more comfortable roles on New York’s defensive units, and one has an Islanders team that looks vastly different than the one New York iced in its last postseason appearance during the lockout-shortened ’12-’13 NHL season.
Most noticeably, the Isles’ young forwards have made a huge difference this season. While Brock Nelson has been battling through a goal-scoring drought, the Islanders’ core of youngsters – including Ryan Strome and Anders Lee – have combined to score 95 points (33G, 62A) for New York this season and have created match-up problems for their opponents all season long.
Of course, the Rangers’ youngsters – Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, and Kevin Hayes – have been contributing tremendously to their team’s lineup this season, but the progress that Nelson, Lee, and Strome have made this season certainly sets the Isles’ young guns apart from the Rangers’. However, if one takes a comprehensive look at the two teams’ lineups, they’ll see that the Isles and Rangers match up quite evenly when it comes to offense.
Rick Nash and John Tavares – both 55-point scorers at this point in time – are tied for points, and Derrick Brassard and Kyle Okposo (injured) both find themselves in the same point range. As a matter of fact, both teams have ten skaters that have scored 20 or more points so far this season and at least seven players with double-digit goals – something that highlights why the Rangers and Islanders are currently fourth and fifth in the league in scoring.
Despite the closeness in overall offense, there are a few small differences in how both teams are potting their offensive chances. On the one hand, the Islanders have had the added benefit of having their defensemen (Leddy, Boychuk, Hickey, and Hamonic) jump into offensive play as the four rearguards have combined to score 85 points for the Islanders thus far. Comparatively, the Rangers have received steady contributions from Kevin Klein, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, and Dan Girardi, but an injured Dan Boyle – much like an injured Lubomir Visnovsky for the Islanders – has sapped some of the additional offensive gains that the Rangers could have had this season.
Although the Islanders might have a slight edge when it comes to their defensemen jumping in on offensive play, the Rangers have had a definite edge in defensive play. Ranking fourth in terms of goals against, the Rangers’ average of 2.1 goals allowed per game blows the Isles’ ranking (22nd with 2.8 goals allowed per game) out of the water. While the defensive rankings for both teams differ greatly, one must also note that the Rangers have only scored four goals against the Islanders in three match-ups this season – with three of those goals coming in an October 14th contest from the beginning of the season.
Of course, there’s no point in denying the stories that statistics tell us about our respective teams, but the fact of the matter remains that there is a different atmosphere that is set when the Islanders and Rangers meet up. Refusing to give one another any quarter, defensive play is usually tightened up by both teams when they meet on the ice, so it’s extremely hard to predict how either team will perform defensively – especially over a seven-game playoff series.
What is known, however, is that the Rangers possess more collective playoff experience than the Islanders, which could play an important role come playoff time.
Veteran Savvy To The Rescue?
Having reached the playoffs the last eight out of nine seasons, the New York Rangers have the benefit of experience on their side – and that’s something that cannot simply be ignored.
Sure, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk have won the Stanley Cup before and have seen many scenarios play out in the postseason, but the Rangers command a roster that has more or less shared the same experiences as Leddy and Boychuk – minus the Cup-winning aspect. John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and a few other Islanders got a chance to get a taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs during the abbreviated ’12-’13 NHL season, and the team certainly gave the Pittsburgh Penguins a run for their money, but that limited sample size pales in comparison with what the Rangers have compiled over the last several years.
Now, this isn’t to say that playoff experience is the be-all and end-all of playoff success – especially since the Rangers’ roster has changed over the years – but it is a key element that can help guide teams to the Stanley Cup. Do the Los Angeles Kings ring a bell here?
While the Rangers’ familiarity with a playoff atmosphere could help them better adapt to certain situations in the postseason, the battle for New York isn’t one that will potentially be won based on pure experience – it is one that could largely be fought for elsewhere.
Special Teams & The Crease
Looking at the Islanders’ special teams this season, one can definitely see the disparity between the Isles being up a skater and being down a skater. While the Isles currently possess the league’s 11th best powerplay, they also hold the league’s second worst penalty kill – and special teams have the potential to swing any postseason series, just like they did back in ’12-’13 against the Penguins.
Performing well on the man-advantage, but playing poorly while shorthanded could definitely hinder the Islanders come playoff time. Tightening up the penalty kill will undoubtedly be a main focus for the Islanders regardless of who they play in the postseason, but if they draw the Rangers first, then special teams will be of the utmost importance in determining the winner.
Seeing as how the Rangers currently rank ninth on the power-play and 13th on the penalty kill, the Islanders would have to be extremely careful with their special teams. However, having a healthy Michael Grabner in the lineup could make a world of a difference for the Isles.
Constantly pestering the opposition with his stick-work and being a threat to break away from the opposition with his speed, Grabner could be the weapon that the Islanders need in order to boost their penalty killing to an appropriate level. Although Grabner has had an injury-filled ’14-’15 campaign, Garth Snow has the added benefit of playing with a deep-enough Islanders roster and letting Grabner heal fully before reinserting him into New York’s lineup.
Of course, depending on one player to change the dynamic of one’s special teams is wishful thinking, but the Islanders also have an element that they haven’t had since the early 2000s – and yes, we are talking about quality goaltending.
While the Islanders rode some great performances from Evgeni Nabokov to the Stanley Cup Playoffs two seasons ago, having Jaroslav Halak in goal has definitely helped the team. Possessing a 31-11-0 mark currently, Halak is slated to become the winningest netminder in Islanders history – barring injury or extreme inconsistency – but more importantly, the goalie has kept his team in close games and has comes up with countless clutch saves for the Islanders this season.
Standing opposite to Halak in a potential match-up with the Rangers would most likely be Henrik Lundqvist – assuming he fully recovers from injury – and nobody could argue the value that he brings to the Rangers in any type of setting.
Just by looking at peripheral statistics for Halak (2.40 GAA, .912 Save Percentage) and Lundqvist (2.25 GAA, .922 Save Percentage), one would think that the Rangers have a clear-cut advantage in the crease, but one look at Halak’s postseason numbers (23 GP, 10-11, 2.42 GAA, .923 Save Percentage) would suggest that the netminder is no slouch come playoff time.
Although Halak amassed a significant portion of his playoff statistics during the Canadiens’ ’09-’10 playoff run, he will be tasked with stepping his game up once the Islanders reach the playoffs – and even more so if the goalie on the other end happens to be Lundqvist. With no shortage of talent or drive, having a healthy Halak or Lundqvist in goal for the Islanders and Rangers will be one of the biggest keys to winning a potential battle for New York.
Do They Match Up Well?
All things considered, the New York Rangers would be a huge test for an Islanders team that has been playing on a high note for the majority of the ’14-’15 regular season.
Accomplishing certain feats and breaking others set by Islanders teams of years past, the current lot of Islanders players are certainly not the same bunch that made the ’12-’13 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Possessing a hunger that Islanders fans haven’t seen in a long time, every single part of New York’s lineup seems driven to set a tone before moving to the Barclays Center.
Matching up well against Metropolitan Division teams at home so far this season (11-0), the Islanders have given the opposition no reason to take them lightly – and it’s unlikely that the Rangers would underestimate the Islanders in a playoff scenario.
Given all the facts, a Rangers-Islanders playoff match-up has the ability to break down both teams. Playing a rivalry game is always a big deal for either team during the regular season, so just imagine what it would be like to play four, five, six, or even seven emotionally, physically, and mentally-charged games with so much on the line.
Looking past bragging rights, a Rangers-Islanders series could wear out either side with ease. Playing to the best of their abilities, neither the Islanders nor Rangers would let the other walk away with a lopsided series victory. Simply put, the battle for New York would be one that would be won through blood, sweat, and a boatload of pain – which beckons the question, do the Rangers and Islanders really want to be playoff opponents?
In his third year with The Hockey Writers, Toli covers all things related to the New York Islanders. Focusing on the Islanders, the NHL Draft & draft-eligible prospect goalies, and hockey history, Toli can be contacted on Facebook by searching/messaging Toli Metter and on twitter by searching @ToliMetterTHW.