Perceptions Change for Rangers and Islanders

At the conclusion of last season the New York Islanders were viewed as a young team ready to take the next step up the ladder of success in the National Hockey League, while the New York Rangers were thought to be at the end of an impressive five-year run which included three Eastern Conference Final appearances and a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Now, as the two teams meet Tuesday evening at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the perception of each has changed with one-third of the 2016-17 season complete.

The Islanders now sit in last place in the Eastern Conference with 23 points and are 28th overall in the entire league. The Rangers, meanwhile, raced out to an impressive start, winning 13 of their first 17 games, and enter play Tuesday tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division with 35 points.

Of course one can throw the records and standings into the trash can when these bitter rivals meet head to head.

Still it is worthwhile to see where each team is at, and where they might be headed, before Tuesday’s Brooklyn clash.

The Manhattan Seesaw

In the nine games since their high-flying start, where they secured 26 of a possible 34 points, the Rangers have stumbled to a 4-4-1 mark. Their play has been wildly inconsistent, not just from game to game, but, often, from period to period within the same game.

Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes was the latest example. Vastly outshot and outchanced as they seemingly were sleepwalking through the first 40 minutes of play, the Rangers rallied on a pair of Chris Kreider goals late in the third period to secure a victory over an inferior team.

Earlier the same week, the Rangers played a simply terrible first period against the very same Hurricanes, falling behind 2-0 before regrouping and earning a 3-2 victory. That contest followed on the heels of a 2-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators where the Blueshirts could not generate a lick of offense against a solid defensive team that trapped the Rangers through the neutral zone all night long.

Opponents have adjusted to the Rangers and are finding ways to shut them down and make them work harder for the scoring chances they do get as the season progresses. That, and increased spotty play in their own end of the rink coupled with some inconsistent work in goal by Henrik Lundqvist, has been at the heart of the team’s recent struggles.

Perhaps to add a jolt of energy to the group, the Rangers recalled hard-working rookie forward Marek Hrivik from the Hartford Wolf Pack to take the spot of Michael Grabner in Tuesday’s lineup against the Islanders. Grabner, the Blueshirts’ leading goal scorer with 13, left the team to be with his family after the death of his grandmother.

Instead of using both Josh Jooris and Oscar Lindberg against the Islanders, with Grabner out, Alain Vigneault will scratch one of those two to make room for Hrivik, who has 17 points (8-9-17) in 20 games this year in Hartford. It is a minor, yet not so subtle, dig at the current group.

It says a lot about how expectations have changed with the Rangers that there is such consternation among the Blueshirt Faithful about the current state of this first-place team. The Rangers surprising start has greatly altered the perception of the team and expectations from the outside.

It is likely when Mika Zibanejad heals from his fractured fibula after the new year, Pavel Buchnevich returns from his back woes, Lundqvist finds his rhythm and higher-end form, and the coaches and players devise strategies to beat the traps they’ll be facing the rest of the season, the Rangers will find their stride again.

It is worth questioning if the Blueshirts are as good as they looked the first six weeks of the season, but they are still a legitimate contender in the East, for sure.

Climbing Out of a Hole

Coming off consecutive 100-point seasons and their first playoff series win in 23 years, expectations were high for the Islanders this season. However they are in a precarious situation now, sitting at the bottom of the standings two months into the 2016-17 campaign.

The losses of cornerstone forwards Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin this summer have been huge. The dismal play of veteran newcomers Andrew Ladd (2-3-5 on the season, no goals in his last ten games) and Jason Chimera (one goal in his first 21 games, three on the season) has been alarming. The play at both ends of the rink by youngsters Ryan Strome (no goals in 17 games, just two this year), Brock Nelson (two goals in his last nine, six on the season) and Anders Lee (one goal in his first 18 games, though five in his last six), wildly inconsistent.

Then there’s been the league’s 30th ranked power play. And injuries to key defensemen Dennis Seidenberg, Ryan Pulock and Travis Hamonic. Three goalies on the roster, one of whom has yet to play a single game, and none that has been able to secure the No. 1 spot. Did we mention the Barclays Center has the worst ice in the league?

OK, maybe that’s piling on, but you get the point. It has not been pretty, so far, for the Islanders.

Yet they have finally shown some signs of life the past two weeks. In losing two of three on a California trip the Islanders played hard and well enough to win all three if not for some costly mistakes and plain bad luck.

Since that west coast trip the Islanders have gone 3-0-1, a stretch that included a season-high three-game winning streak. An impressive 3-0 road win in Washington over the Capitals Thursday followed a gut-check 5-3 home-ice win over the Pittsburgh Penguins 24 hours prior.

It’s a start in the right direction for an Islanders team that can not afford any more extended stretches of bad play this season, such is the hole they have dug themselves.

Playing the Rangers usually brings out the best in the Islanders, so there’s a good chance they keep some positive momentum going Tuesday, whether they actually secure the two points at hand or not. Two more games remain with the Capitals this month. The tough Chicago Blackhawks pay a visit to Brooklyn next week. There’s a difficult road contest in Columbus against the surprising Blue Jackets upcoming this weekend.

So just getting out of December better than .500 for the 9-10-5 Islanders will be difficult; but it is imperative at the same time with New York facing a stretch of seven of eight on the road in January, a period that could ultimately break the Islanders who have won only twice away from home so far this season.

The Islanders can’t be looking that far ahead, though, the hole is just too deep now. The focus has to be all about Tuesday and the New York Rangers.