The New York Islanders start the season with two games against the New York Rangers. The Rangers may have struggled last season but look ready to make major strides and give the Islanders some trouble in the East Division this season. With the back-to-back games, the team needs to avoid falling behind in a competitive division and need to execute these three elements of both games.
Test the Young Skaters of the Rangers
The Rangers’ success this season is going to be heavily dependent on the young skaters and how they play in this unusual season. The Rangers drafted Kaapo Kakko with the second pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and drafted Alexis Lafreniere with the first pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. With Kappo expected to improve and Lafreniere being regarded as one of the elite prospects in the NHL, and the other young stars like Brendan Lemieux poised to breakout, the Islanders must constantly test the young skaters in the first two games. (from ‘Alexis Lafreniere, K’Andre Miller head Rangers’ youth group brimming with potential,’ Newsday, 01/13/2021)
The Islanders must defensively give the young skaters tough looks and also give them a tough time on the boards. The Islanders bring an experienced lineup, especially on defense, and they need to assure that the young talented skaters never gain their footing.
The Rangers’ young players will only get better as the season goes on and they receive more ice time, but in the first two games, the Islanders must take advantage of the lack of games they played and the growing pains that come with playing in the NHL.
Take Advantage of the Lower Defensive Lines
The Rangers have a strong defense, led by Jacob Trouba, Brendan Smith, and Adam Fox. However, the second and third lines of the defense are question marks for the Rangers and could be a weakness this season.
The Rangers hope that acquiring Jack Johnson can help with that void, but early in the season, the Islanders must take advantage and find scoring opportunities. They have a deep scoring lineup, and if they can match up scorers like Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Cal Clutterbuck against those later lines, the Islanders can pile on the goals.
Who Will the Young Skaters Pair Up Best With?
Over the course of this season, head coach Barry Trotz must figure out who the young skaters can play best with. The Islanders have young skaters in all parts of the lineup capable of making a major impact on the starting lineup, including Josh Ho-Sang, Oliver Wahlstrom, Noah Dobson and Sebastian Aho. In the first two games against the Rangers, it will be pivotal for the Islanders to find the young skaters who can not only replace the talent lost over the offseason but also play well with the lines that are in place.
The most important of all prospects is the 21-year-old defenseman, Dobson. He will likely play on the third line which is now a search to replace Devon Toews, who was traded in the offseason, and Johnny Boychuk, who retired. (from ‘Islanders trade Devon Toews to Avalanche to ease salary cap crunch,’ New York Post, 10/12/2020)
In the two games against the Rangers, Dobson is going to be tested by a Rangers’ lineup that has proven scorers, making it a priority to find a great pairing to help Dobson on defense.
Is There Anything Else the Islanders Need to Prepare for?
The Islanders need to take advantage of the scoring depth they possess. In these games against the Rangers, it might not be Mat Barzal or Anders Lee that win the games, rather the second or third line finding open shots and loose pucks in front of the net. Additionally, it will be crucial for the Islanders to take away the top scorers of the Rangers. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad can get into a rhythm in these games, and the top line of the defense needs to constantly give their scorers trouble and make sure they establish the blue line to prevent quick attacks leading to goals.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.