Isles and Rangers Face Off at the Garden

The Islanders are heading into the Big Apple to face their archrivals, the New York Rangers.  Coming off back-to-back shootout wins (courtesy of Frans Neilsen and his patented forehand-backhand-top shelf move), the young Isles team is carrying a bit of momentum into the World’s Greatest Arena.  They are playing with more confidence and finding ways to win hockey games. 

This is a good thing.  Because they will need every ounce of momentum, confidence, skill, (and maybe even a little luck) to leave Madison Square Garden with 2 points against the Rangers in tonight’s contest.

The Rangers (with 3 games in hand) are currently tied for 2nd in the Atlantic Division with the Pittsburgh Penguins, as they each have managed 42 points so far this season.  Granted Pittsburgh has faced injury issues which have grabbed more media attention this season with Sidney Crosby, but don’t discount the fact that the Rangers have been without their best defenseman all season as well. 

Marc Staal is still out of the lineup recovering from post-concussion syndrome.  He has returned to skating with his teammates, but has yet to be cleared for contact. 

The Rangers defensive core, led by Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, deserves a significant amount of credit for stepping up this season and filling the void left by Staal’s absence.  Henrik Lundqvist also deserves a great deal of accolades for playing up to his usual lofty standards so far this season.  He gives the Rangers a chance to win every night.

The injury bug has not been kind to the Atlantic Division so far this season, with numerous players missing significant amounts of time due to concussions.  Chris Pronger and Claude Giroux of the Flyers, Marc Staal of the Rangers, Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, and most recently Brian Rolston of the Islanders have all missed time this season – and in Pronger’s case, will miss the remainder of this season.

Add two more names to the list of players who have fallen victim to the concussion epidemic sweeping across the NHL – Islanders forward David Ullstrom and goaltender Al Montoya. 

Ullstrom was injured with just 90 seconds remaining in overtime against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night.  As he went to deliver a hit, he collided awkwardly with first with the Jets player and then with the boards, falling instantly to the ice.  As he rose, he looked woozy and needed assistance from teammates to leave the playing surface. 

Montoya was the unlucky recipient of a questionable-at-best play involving Evander Kane.  Kane carried the puck wide along the right wing boards around Isles defenseman Milan Jurcina.  As Kane eluded Jurcina to the outside, Jurcina and he jockeyed for position heading towards the net.  Jurcina attempted to push Kane – in what appeared to be a direction away from the net – but Kane’s momentum apparently caused him to steamroll the defenseless Montoya. 

Kane was administered a 2 minute penalty for goaltender interference, and no further word from the League has been given as to whether supplemental discipline may be the case here.  Regardless, Montoya left the game, prompting Evgeni Nabokov to take the crease where he eventually earned the shootout win in relief. 

Despite leaving Winnipeg with 2 points, the Islanders paid a steep price to do so.  Both players are being evaluated, and are considered out ‘indefinitely.’

Nabokov played superb in relief of Montoya, and figures to get the start against the Rangers tonight.  He will have an opportunity while both Montoya and DiPietro are injured to showcase himself to the rest of the league, should the Islanders wish to explore trade opportunities nearer to the trade deadline.  At this point, however, it is the Russian veteran’s net to tend.

Goaltender Anders Nilsson was called up from Bridgeport to fill Montoya’s roster spot, and figures to back up Nabokov against the Rangers.  There is a chance he will see NHL action Friday night against the Leafs, should the Isles not wish to tempt fate by playing Nabokov (off of a recent groin injury) on back to back nights. 

Fan favorite Michael Haley was also recalled from Bridgeport.  Call me crazy, but what fan isn’t excited to see this kid up for a stretch of games which will include a ‘Rangers sandwich’ with a game against the much-hated Maple Leafs in between.  (Author’s note: Yes, I’m still bitter about the 2002 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals)  Haley will likely see fourth line duty with Marty Reasoner and Tim Wallace, with Matt Martin getting an opportunity to play on one of the top 3 lines.  Something tells me we will see Haley sitting in the box for a 5 minute stretch at least once or twice in the next few nights.

The Islanders have scored 72 goals this season, tied for worst in the league with the L.A Kings.  For a team that was hyped coming into the season as a “dormant offensive juggernaut,” this simply will not do.  While the Islanders have found ways to win games recently, especially on the road, their scorers must start to get the job done with more efficiency.  With the latest injury to Montoya, the Islanders have to remain committed to playing tough defense while in their own zone, but also to playing a high tempo game on offense for the full 60 minutes. 

Josh Bailey has been scoring more consistently of late, though he had begun establishing some nice chemistry with the young Ullstrom who will be out for at least the next few games.  Kyle Okposo also broke out from his slow start, but needs to find more ways to put the puck to the net.  Most importantly, John Tavares, who continues to find ways onto the scoresheet thanks to his playmaking ability, absolutely needs to find the back of the net in a game like this.  Against a rival, on a small hot streak, finally getting some momentum back towards playoff contention – this is a game where your best player needs to be your best player and find a way to get the puck past Henrik Lundqvist.

The Rangers offense is usually the more lackluster of the two rivals, but this season the Rangers are finding ways to score more often, more consistently – it is the major reason for their ascension to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference standings.  Marian Gaborik (30 pts) is scoring at almost a point-per-game clip, and high price free agent Brad Richards (26 pts) isn’t off to a shabby start either. 

The real positive story for the Rangers this season has been the consistency of their secondary scoring.  This comes courtesy of Ryan Callahan (23 pts) and Artem Anisimov (21 pts).  It also comes from one of the breakout players from all across the NHL, former 2nd round pick Derek Stepan, who has chipped in 24 points of his own so far this season.

Prediction:  The Rangers will score first – something the Islanders have been accustomed to doing on the road themselves recently – and second.  The Islanders will find a way to dig themselves out of the two goal deficit and barely hang on in the third period as the horn sounds to force overtime.  The Islanders will get the big goal they need from the big star they have on the biggest stage in the world, as John Tavares will light the lamp in OT to give the Islanders a huge win at the Garden. 

Final score:  Islanders 3, Rangers 2 – OT



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