In an extremely entertaining affair at Barclays Center Wednesday night, the New York Islanders scored twice in the first period and never trailed in knocking off their arch rivals, the New York Rangers, 4-2.
There was so much more to this one than simply the last place Islanders finding a way to beat the first place Blueshirts with a fun, raucous atmosphere rarely seen in Brooklyn so far this season.
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) December 7, 2016
Two game-turning moments stand out the most. The Islanders, leading 1-0 at the time, killed off a four-minute double minor to Brock Nelson in the first period as Jaroslav Halak stopped all nine shots he faced during that power play, then doubled their advantage as Nelson hopped out of the box to set up Jason Chimera for a 2-0 lead in a wild sequence of events.
Jimmy Vesey’s goal less than a minute into the second period seemed to signal a Rangers’ comeback, but a neutral zone turnover less than two minutes later cost the Blueshirts in an eventual Andrew Ladd score which made it 3-1 Isles.
Those sequences were as important as any in the Islanders 4-2 victory in the latest edition of this New York-New York rivalry.
Here are a few other takeaways from the Barclays press box and post game locker rooms.
With Tuesday night’s victory, the Islanders are now 4-0-1 in their last five games, far and away the team’s best run of the season. What started with an ugly, yet ultimately exciting, 2-1 overtime victory last Monday versus the Calgary Flames, now includes victories over three elite division rivals in the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Rangers.
That fact is not lost on the players.
“These are the games we play the most, the ones within our division; and it’s no secret if you want to make the playoffs and you want to be a good team, you’ve got to beat the top teams in the league and beat the teams within your division,” Islanders captain John Tavares told The Hockey Writers after sealing the latest victory with a third-period goal. “Being able to do that recently has certainly helped us. We feel like we deserved to get those wins; and I think we all recognize there are some good building blocks in place with these wins. It’s huge to beat these teams and we want to build more on them.”
You can see the confidence growing in the Islanders. Perhaps the players are remembering the 100-point club they were each of the past two seasons and are ready to leave a woeful start to 2016-17 in its wake.
Before the game, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault called the Islanders “a good team on paper” and added “they’re the same team they’ve always been..they’re a hard-working team, put a lot of pressure on the opposition, and they play a real structured neutral-zone game…all of our games against them are close and hard-fought.”
With a 10-10-5 record the Islanders are at .500 for the first time since October 23 when their record stood at 3-3-0. They have not been over the .500 mark yet this season.
“What does it mean to reach .500?,” a reporter asked Tavares after Tuesday’s win.
“It means we have a lot more work to do.”
As for the Rangers, Tuesday’s defeat dropped them to 4-5-1 in their last ten games since rushing out to a 13-4-0 start. Though they have lost consecutive games only once this season, they now have not won consecutive games since a three-game winning streak out in western Canada November 12-15.
There’s no reason to panic, and certainly most hockey people believed the Rangers would fall back a bit to the pack after their season-opening surge. Yet Henrik Lundqvist proved again Tuesday that he needs to be better on a much more consistent basis, and it’s somewhat of a concern the club’s inability to play a full 60 minutes.
That said, the Rangers could have ended up the winner Tuesday night. They pumped 38 shots on goal and Halak was simply terrific. His point-blank save on Mats Zuccarello during the four-minute Blueshirt power play in the first period summed up Halak’s brilliance and the Rangers frustration on the night.
“He was dialed in tonight,” Isles coach Jack Capuano said of his goaltender.
Road games in Winnipeg and Chicago precede tough home contests against the Devils and Blackhawks, providing a stiff challenge for the Rangers to break out of their recent rut.
Not to make excuses, but the Rangers are playing without two hugely important pieces to their puzzle, and their recent up and down play has coincided with the injuries to Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.
Removing those two highly skilled forwards from the mix has not only lessened the talent pool deployed by the Blueshirts, but has challenged the team’s depth and moved players into different roles and line combinations, and not everyone has flourished.
For example, Kevin Hayes is scoreless in his last five games and J.T. Miller is just 0-2-2 in his last seven.
Tuesday night the Rangers lost two more forwards when Rick Nash suffered a groin injury in the second period and Matt Puempel a concussion in the first. Neither player returned and the prognosis on both is still in question.
In the short-term Vigneault had to go with ten forwards for more than half the game Tuesday, with rookie call-up Marek Hrivik and struggling Swede Oscar Lindberg in that mix. Keep in mind Michael Grabner and his team-high 13 goals was in Austria attending his grandmother’s funeral.
Should Nash join Zibanejad and Buchnevich for a bit on the sidelines, Vigneault will need secondary scoring in bunches, and a renewed defensive commitment by the entire squad to weather this latest storm.
One day after Hrivik was recalled from the minors, the Rangers were forced to recall forward Niklas Jensen on Wednesday.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) December 7, 2016
On the flip side, the Islanders are getting healthier, even with Johnny Boychuk out Tuesday due to the flu bug that has run its way through the room. And in a sign that the worm may be turning in Brooklyn, even that worked out, as emergency call up Scott Mayfield scored the game-opening goal just 7:03 into play Tuesday.
Dennis Seidenberg has been back for the past two games, Ryan Pulock is playing rehab games in Bridgeport, and the forwards are all healthy as the Islanders are, perhaps not so coincidentally, playing their best hockey of the season.
Remember when the Rangers were the Kings of the Blocked Shot? It wasn’t that long ago that was such a staple of the Black and Blueshirts, first under John Tortorella and then under Alain Vigneault.
Now they have clearly handed that crown over to the Islanders.
In a one-game example of how vastly different these two teams approach this important aspect of play, the Islanders blocked 28 shots Tuesday while the Rangers recorded only six. Isles defenseman Calvin de Haan alone blocked seven shots, while teammate Travis Hamonic had six. No Ranger had more than one; and one-time shot-blocking monster Dan Girardi did not record a single blocked shot.
Part of this has to do with preferred style of play. The Rangers had the puck a lot of the time and attempted 77 shots on the night, so the Islanders, who attempted only 44 shots, were forced to defend much more often.
While that is true, it is also a gritty mentality the Isles have under Capuano that the Rangers are moving away from more than ever it seems this year. The Islanders lead the league in blocked shots; and de Haan ranks third individually with 69, while leading the NHL with an average of 9.02 blocks per 60 minutes.
Boychuk, Hamonic and Thomas Hickey are also among the league leaders, and, to be fair, so is the Blueshirts’ Girardi, though he stands out as an individual while the Islanders are much more of a group effort.
“We take pride in being a good shot-blocking team,” stated Capuano. “(Tuesday) night we paid the price.”