Battle For New York: Islanders vs Rangers

Preview:  The New York Islanders return home to Nassau Coliseum to take on their all-time rival, the New York Rangers. 

The Islanders are coming off a western road trip which saw them give up a 3 goal lead in an overtime loss to the Avalanche, and a clinic put on by the Canucks in a loss to Vancouver.  The Islanders have played better hockey since changing up their offensive lines a few games ago, putting up more scoring chances more consistently.  However, they haven’t been able to translate the better play into wins.  A win tonight against the Rangers would mean even more than usual, as it would end a slide of losing efforts. 

The Rangers have been one of the hottest teams in the league in recent weeks, charging up the Eastern Conference standings after faltering in their overseas opening weekend.  Marian Gaborik has played to his contract’s value so far this season (if not, more), and done most of his damage without prized free agent acquisition Brad Richards centering him.  Perhaps most impressive of all is having done this damage without All Star defenseman Marc Staal in the lineup, as he recovers from post-concussion syndrome (courtesy of his own brother, Eric).

Forwards:  For the Islanders, the same story seems to be playing game after game, as we all await Kyle Okposo and Blake Comeau to hit the score sheet.  Josh Bailey recently notched his first goal against the Avalanche, and hopefully he can play a little looser having gotten that first one out of the way.  Michael Grabner has started to get scoring chances at a more familiar pace, with a number of odd man rushes and breakaway opportunities in the past few games.  He now has 5 goals this season.  And since the story hasn’t changed, it’s worth noting – as John Tavares goes, so go the Islanders.  He has been their best and most consistent forward this season, scoring at a point-per-game pace.  The big story for the Islanders in tonight’s contest will be the season debut of Nino Neiderreiter.  An interesting sub plot for Islanders fans will be to see who takes a seat to make room in the lineup, and which line El Nino will join. 

The Rangers boast two of the most dynamic players in the league in Gaborik and Richards, who are both scoring, though not on the same line as was originally envisioned.  However the more impressive story this season has been from the Rangers secondary scoring weapons, who have stepped up in a big way during their recent hot streak.  Artem Anisimov (10 points), Ryan Callahan (9), and sophomore Derek Stepan (10) have all contributed in big ways offensively this season.  Brandon Dubinsky, who received a hefty raise over the summer has also come on strong in recent games, after starting very slowly this season. 

Edge:  Rangers – until Okposo, Comeau, and Bailey can start scoring with any consistency, the Islanders are far too thin at the forward position.  Neidereitter will provide a boost, but it’s too early to consider him a difference maker.

Defense:  The Islanders defenseman have not scored an even strength goal yet this season.  That is simply remarkable.  It’s time for the defenseman to start helping out in the offensive zone.  Look for Mark Streit to play huge minutes in this game, and for the Hamonic/MacDonald pairing to match up against Gaborik all night. 

The Rangers have done a stellar job this season without their best defenseman, Marc Staal.  Dan Girardi has emerged from a solid defensive defenseman to an all-around first pair defenseman.  Girardi will likely see the most action against the Tavares line tonight in an attempt to force the Islanders to beat them with the secondary scoring they are still desperately trying to find.  Also taking a huge step forward this season is Ryan McDonagh (what a steal in the Gomez contract-shedding trade), and so far so good for Michael Del Zotto, who regressed last year after a stellar rookie campaign.  Through 15 games, it looks as though he may be getting back some of his rookie swagger.  The Rangers will need him to continue to improve if they want to make any noise in the playoffs this season.

Edge:  Rangers

Goaltending:  It would be extraordinarily homer-ish of me to say anything other than the following:

In net for the Rangers, multiple time Vezina finalist, Henrik Lundqvist.  In net for the Islanders, anybody’s guess between former Ranger prospect Al Montoya, elder statesman Evgeni Nabokov, and rusty Rick DiPietro. 

Edge:  Rangers  (P.S – time for the three headed goalie charade to end)

Prediction:  The Rangers boast the better lineup on paper without question, but the Islanders always find a way to gear up for these rivalry games.  However, the Rangers have been scoring at high rates lately while the Islanders haven’t exactly been preventing goals with too much success.  Unless John Tavares comes up with another 3+ point night, I have a hard time seeing this game end with the Islanders getting any points.  I’ll say that the Islanders go down 3-0 before goals by Tavares and then by Okposo in the third period make for a furious final minute.  The Rangers hold on, thanks to a King Hank stop on a Mark Streit shot from the point which proves to be the best scoring chance by the Isles in their final minute frenzy.  Final score:  Rangers 3, Islanders 2