Callahan dooms Rangers spoiling St. Louis’ return

Deja Vu: Former Ranger Ryan Callahan celebrates another goal on Henrik Lundqvist.  AP Photo by Chris O'Meara/Getty Images

Deja Vu: Former Ranger Ryan Callahan celebrates another goal on Henrik Lundqvist.
AP Photo by Chris O’Meara/Getty Images

The Rangers have plenty to be thankful for. Playing in a mediocre division, they’ve survived without captain Ryan McDonagh. If there’s one thing they won’t appreciate, it’s the way former captain Ryan Callahan has treated them. In two games so far, he’s scored four goals on Henrik Lundqvist. For the season, he has 10. Forty percent have come against his former buddy in two Lightning wins. Tampa Bay defeated the Rangers 4-3 snapping a two-game win streak. So much for winning three straight.

With his team trailing 2-1, Callahan tallied twice putting the Bolts in front for good. For good measure, Nikita Kucherov scored again resulting in the game-winner as Tampa held on. Rick Nash made things interesting notching his team-leading 15th with 7:11 remaining. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. An ill timed Chris Kreider offensive zone penalty killed their chances with under 30 seconds remaining. So goes the inconsistency for Kreider. The Lightning ran out the clock.

Unfortunately, the Rangers see them again December 1 a week before my birthday. And no. I’m not going. Who wants to see Callahan torch them for two more? Anyone want to take bets? All four of his goals have come from in front. Whether you attribute that to playing with Steven Stamkos or our lack of D without McDonagh, it’s ugly. In two games, Callahan has made a living and probably driven home his point to Alain Vigneault. Vigneault is the coach who took him off the power play and dropped him to the third line.

Thanks Lightning: Former Lightning captain Martin St. Louis acknowledges the crowd after a video tribute in his return. AP Photo by Chris O'Meara/Getty Images

Thanks Lightning: Former Lightning captain Martin St. Louis acknowledges the crowd after a video tribute in his return.
AP Photo by Chris O’Meara/Getty Images

It is what it is. On what was supposed to be Marty St. Louis’ special night, it was again about a former Ranger who came to play. Similar to Callahan, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman, St. Louis got a video tribute after the first TV timeout. I didn’t see it. I’ll try to catch the replay after work tomorrow in between football. Unlike Callahan’s return, St. Louis was held off the score sheet. It wasn’t for lack of effort. He came very close to tying it following a beauty by Nash. It just wasn’t meant to be.

I’ll be honest and say I missed the first two periods due to work. However, I caught the third. I also saw plenty of angry tweets at Marc Staal, who apparently had a miserable night. He was victimized by Callahan. Tanner Glass also caught the brunt of it for being on for two goals against. It was his giveaway that led directly to Kucherov scoring off a double deflection for the coup de grace.

At this juncture of the season, the Rangers are what they are. An inconsistent puzzle missing its best defenseman. When they play the Flyers twice in a classic home-and-home starting Black Friday and concluding Saturday, will McDonagh make all the difference? Defensively, this team struggles with fast skating teams who play gritty. The Lightning qualify there. The Rangers haven’t figured them out yet. In a week, McDonagh will be back for the next meeting. Will it have a different end result? We’ll have to wait and see.

They have played 21 games and are 9-8-4. That’s still good enough for a share of third with the Capitals, who fell to the red hot Islanders in overtime on a highlight reel goal from John Tavares. Right now, they trail the Islanders and Penguins by 10 points. At a quarter in, there’s a lot of hockey to be played. Once McDonagh returns, the Rangers will be fully healthy. Vigneault faces a decision. Keep Matt Hunwick in or stick with the wildly inconsistent John Moore. He also must decide on Glass, who continues to play. Lee Stempniak was a healthy scratch tonight. That is absurd on so many levels. Vigneault can bench Jesper Fast or finally give Glass a night in the press box.

Scoring isn’t the issue. The Rangers got three past Ben Bishop, who usually owns them. However, they still found a way to lose. There were positives. Dan Boyle had his best game scoring his first on the power play. He was all over the ice jumping in on the rush. Exactly what you want to see. Derek Stepan continued to put up points, assisting on Boyle’s marker. Stepan has been pretty good since returning. Mats Zuccarello scored his fourth. He needs to start finishing. So, that’s also a good sign. Anthony Duclair looks more confident. Maybe it’ll work between him, Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin. If it does, then Vigneault must fix the fourth line.

Personally, I feel that they’re missing something. Larry Brooks had a good piece on the potential butchering of J.T. Miller. Miller is playing center for Hartford. But that’s not where he fits here. Especially with Hayes impressing Vigneault. Miller deserves a second chance. He has size and physical tools this team lacks. Subtracting Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett has taken away some of the edge. Boyle might not have been overly physical but he played with passion and was a PK fixture. Dorsett is much better than Glass. Though I’m told he was never returning.

The current roster isn’t as deep. It’s also weaker defensively. They signed Boyle for his offense and lost Anton Stralman’s defense. Ironically, he continues to produce and play like a top defenseman. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Lightning are also without their top D. Last I checked, Victor Hedman was every bit as good as McDonagh. The difference is the Bolts are way deeper and more talented. They also have Stamkos, who again feasted scoring a power play goal and assisting on two others.

As for Lundqvist, there really wasn’t much he could’ve done. His D did a terrible job in front. That’s been the case far too much. McDonagh or no McDonagh. There’s enough experience to prevent that. Maybe Vigneault needs to spend a bit more time preaching defense. One other point. When does he finally send a message to Kreider? Kreider’s play has been puzzling. He isn’t the same player. He could use a kick in the ass.

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Brodeur getting tryout in St. Louis

Martin Brodeur saluting the crowd after his last game…or not?

Two months into the season, finally there is some news on the Martin Brodeur front.  Not the retirement announcement some might have expected by now, but in fact a post-Thanksgiving tryout with a Blues team that lost starting goaltender Brian Elliott to a week-to-week injury looking for a vet with experience to fill in.  St. Louis’s current #1 is rookie Jake Allen and their #2 is green AHL goalie Jordan Binnington.  I’m kind of loath to give thoughts on this until and if Brodeur actually signs with the Blues, though the one immediate plus of Marty going there is that the Blues don’t play the Devils the rest of the season.  And quite honestly if any team’s going to make Marty appear better than he is at this point in his career it’s a strong Blues team with Ken Hitchcock’s great defensive system.

However I’ll say this…anyone that’s going to begrudge him going to St. Louis and not finishing his career as a Devil, honestly at this point it really doesn’t matter.  It’s not as if Marty didn’t give us his best hockey while he was here, or that he’s going to a rival to stick it to us a la Brett Favre in Minnesota.  Would it be more asthetically pleasing if his win last April and the crowd applause was his last moment in an NHL uniform?  Sure, but it’s not like we didn’t know in the back of our minds there was the possibility Marty might show up again in an NHL rink this season.  It wasn’t the true sendoff he’ll inevitably get anyway when his number gets raised to the rafters.  Plus, we don’t have the right to tell Marty he can’t play anymore.  If he wants to get every ounce out of his career and let the league tell him he can’t play anymore that’s fine.

In that vein I wouldn’t want to see him getting racked either.  That would be senseless but ultimately forgotten over time.  Who even remembers Joe Namath playing for the Rams, or Bobby Orr’s forgettable time in Chicago?  Everyone associates Namath with the football Jets, Orr with the Bruins and will forever associate Marty with the Devils, however his career ends.  Now if Marty’s career has an unexpected second act and he plays well (assuming he does wind up getting a contract from the Blues) then I admit I’d have mixed feelings about it.  On a personal level I’d be happy for him and I certainly have nothing against the Blues but Marty having a reinassance against the odds would also re-ignite the ridiculous goalie debate among Devil fans, many blind Marty loyalists who begrudge Cory Schnieder taking his spot – thankfully Cory had a good road trip or the boos for him would approach the boos coach Pete DeBoer will no doubt get Friday night – and others who couldn’t wait to kick Marty out the door.

Ultimately however, that’s a long way away from happening.  And even if Marty does sign with the Blues, how long will his stay really be?  Elliott’s signed for three years at $2.5 million per while Allen’s the Blues goalie of the future and St. Louis can no longer send him to the AHL without exposing Allen to waivers.  When Elliott comes back there’ll be no room for Marty and having him be placed on waivers/cut would be a bad way to go out.  But again, that’s also a long way away as evidenced by the mere fact the Blues have reached out to Marty.

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On Turkey Eve, Martin St. Louis returns to Tampa

A Louis Louis Louis: Martin St. Louis celebrates one of two goals on a memorable night.  The Canadian Press

A Louis Louis Louis: Former Lightning Martin St. Louis celebrates one of two goals on a memorable night one year ago today.
The Canadian Press

Tonight, there will be plenty of emotion for Marty St. Louis who returns to Tampa for the first time since the big trade last March. The former Hart winner who led the Lightning to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup spent 14 years in the Sunshine State before turning heel by requesting a trade to the Rangers. To this day, most observers point to his omission from Canada. Getting passed over by general manager Steve Yzerman hurt his pride.

Whatever the case, the first captain for captain deadline deal saw St. Louis move to Broadway for Ryan Callahan, who drew criticism for his contract demands. As he indicated in a successful MSG return highlighted by two goals in a 5-1 Lightning win, it really boiled down to the no-trade clause. He wound up taking less to stay with Tampa due to getting the NTC until the final couple of years of the contract.

If Nov. 17 was all about Callahan plus former Blueshirts Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman, all the attention will be on St. Louis. In 972 total games with Tampa, he tallied 365 goals and 588 assists for 953 points. That included a memorable 94 points (38-56-94) to win the Hart in ’03-04. He followed it up by notching nine goals and 15 assists in the playoffs- teaming with Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier to win the Cup. No moment was bigger than his goal in double overtime at Calgary that sent the series back to Tampa for Game 7. Ruslan Fedotenko scored twice in Game 7 highlighting the Bolts’ only Cup.

Ironically, St. Louis’ return comes exactly a year later when he torched the Rangers for two goals and an assist in a 5-0 Lightning win. That night, he was honored by the franchise for reaching 1,000 points. In typical fashion, he put on a show. Fast forward a year later and he’s already become a fan favorite with his new team. It was during the postseason where the Rangers came together by rallying from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Pens in the second round following the death of St. Louis’ Mom. No moment was more special than St. Louis scoring this goal on Mother’s Day in Game 6. In their run to the Stanley Cup Final, St. Louis had eight goals and seven assists. That included a huge sudden death goal to beat the Canadiens in Game 4 at MSG. The Rangers took the series in six.

After a slow start, he’s been on fire. St. Louis enters tonight with four goals in his last six games. Dating back to Nov. 3, he has 11 points (7-4-11) over the last 10. For the season, he ranks second in team scoring with 17 points (8-9-17). In a lopsided 5-1 loss against his former team, he scored the lone goal but went minus-four. That one stung leading to some strong criticism from St. Louis who wondered how his team could live with the effort they gave. Figure them to be ready from the drop of the puck. It would be fitting if St. Louis scored and led the Rangers to a win. That’s the kind of player he is.

I’m sure he’ll get booed more than Callahan. However, you have to figure the Lightning fans will cheer loudly when they show a video. But once that drama ends, he’ll hear it. It should be quite the appetizer on Turkey Eve. Unfortunately, I won’t be around to see it. But I should catch the ending and replay.

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Schneider’s 34 saves not enough in loss to Canucks

Cory Schneider returned to Vancouver. He did his part making 34 saves. His teammates did not. The Devils were shutout by the Canucks 2-0. Ryan Miller made 20 saves to hand them a second straight defeat. They concluded a four-game road trip 1-2-1.In a mediocre division, they’re fifth with 21 points trailing the Rangers by a point for third. With nine wins in their first 22 games, what exactly are they? It’s a point resident Devil blogger Hasan has driven home in this space.

After getting a rare night off in what can be called the Calgary debacle, Schneider made his 21st start. Despite a heavy workload similar to former all-time great Martin Brodeur, he’s performed well lately. Over his last six starts, Schneider is 3-3-0 with a 1.53 goals-against-average, .951 save percentage and two shutouts. He can’t be much better than that.

Clearly, the Devils lack consistency. Offensively challenged, they’ve scored 2 goals-or-fewer in 13 games. Their record is 4-8-1. When they score three-or-more, they’re 5-2-2. Goals have been hard to come by recently. With the lone exception being the four they put against the Flames, they’ve totaled six in five of their last six. During that span, they’re 2-3-1. Since a perfect 3-0-0 start, they’re 6-10-3. That simply won’t cut it.

On a night the Canucks paid tribute to former coach and general manager Pat Quinn who passed away at age 71, they dominated. Only Schneider prevented an onslaught stopping all 17 shots in a lopsided first period. The Devils mustered only five. He couldn’t do anything about Vancouver’s first goal which came 1:14 into the second. A Marek Zidlicky turnover led directly to Alex Burrows redirecting a Kevin Bieksa pass into an open side. After failing to clear the zone, Zidlicky was beaten badly by Burrows in front. It was not his night. The veteran also got victimized on Vancouver’s second goal.

Trailing by one, the Devils picked it up. Jaromir Jagr had a couple of chances along with top center Travis Zajac, who ran out of room with Miller down. Zajac has four goals and four assists so far. He isn’t really a top pivot but is being asked to anchor the number one line. At what point does coach Pete DeBoer consider flipping Zajac with Adam Henrique? In 16 games, Henrique has six goals and six assists. He remains their second center. For the time being, Zajac plays with Jagr and Mike Cammalleri, who’s performed up to expectations. With Patrik Elias not as productive and Michael Ryder ice cold after a good start, DeBoer should think about tweaking his lines.

Astonishingly, the Devils’ best chance came off the stick of Steve Bernier. Perfectly set up, he was robbed by a sprawling Miller, who managed to get a piece of a shot labeled for top shelf. It was the save of the game. A few minutes later, a horrible Zidlicky turnover inside allowed Shawn Matthias to score on a breakaway. Zidlicky mishandled the puck allowing Matthias to get behind him. His backhand went off Schneider and then deflected off Zidlicky and in increasing Vancouver’s lead to 2-0 with 5:23 left in regulation.

Predictably, DeBoer pulled Schneider early with over three minutes remaining. It didn’t matter. The Devils return home on Black Friday to host the Red Wings.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Ryan Miller, Canucks (20 save shutout, 2nd of season)

2nd Star-Alex Burrows, Canucks (GWG-5th of season, 5 SOG, +1 in 14:40)

1st Star-Cory Schneider, Devils (34 saves incl. 17/17 in 1st)

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Rangers dominate Canadiens 5-0

This one was one to point to. Playing for the first time since Wednesday due to the cancellation of the Sabres game, the Rangers handled the Canadiens with ease winning 5-0 at MSG. Their second straight win was a repeat in one aspect. It was another shutout. Probably the easiest of Henrik Lundqvist’s career. He only needed 21 saves against a road weary opponent who played the night before defeating the Bruins.

Bottom line. They did what they had to taking full advantage of a tired team who started their backup. Dustin Tokarski couldn’t duplicate his performance in the Conference Final getting lit up for five goals on 34 shots. The first couple were bad. Especially allowing a rebound off a routine Tanner Glass shot that Dominic Moore stuffed in for his first this season. As stunning as that was, both Glass and Jesper Fast picked up assists for their first points. That’ll silence the Glass detractors for the time being.

It wasn’t a perfect start. There were a couple of misplays that led to Montreal chances but Lundqvist stifled them with 11 saves in the first period. One of those came on a John Moore giveaway that nearly allowed Brandon Prust to capitalize. Dan Girardi got very lucky with his customary sliding block. He really shouldn’t do it as it takes him out of position. If the pass gets through, it’s a tap in for Prust.

Lundqvist also was an adventure twice coming out of his net. The first sequence saw him give away the puck and then scramble back. I tweeted that he should be velcro’d to the net. The second instance was much more dangerous. Following a Carl Hagelin goal that put it out of reach, he wandered out to play a puck only to get nailed by Prust, who tried to stop. However, his momentum sent Lundqvist flying leading to Kevin Klein challenging Prust. Another great quality even if Klein bit off more than he could chew. Finally, a defenseman willing to step up.

Once the first concluded, so did the Habs’ chances. The long change in the second doomed them. As if to make a point, Marty St. Louis made a brilliant backhand feed to Derek Stepan, who wristed home his second only 35 seconds in. It literally was a fastball by St. Louis. Just amazing skill from a future Hall Of Famer. He had a wonderful night also scoring a beauty later in the period that increased the Ranger lead to 3-0. St. Louis stripped the puck from a Canadien and broke in and beat Tokarski easily for his eighth. They gave assists to Chris Kreider and John Moore. Kreider had a pair of helpers and had his best game in a while shooting the puck. Tokarski denied him twice.

The Rangers dominated for long stretches. Following 11 shots in the first, the Canadiens only totaled 10 the rest of the match. They really were lethargic and didn’t have their legs. The result was predictable. Sadly, Tokarski was left to fend for himself. He actually made some good saves off point blank chances. Otherwise, it could’ve been uglier.

A bright spot was the play of Anthony Duclair. The 19-year old rookie was active throughout and finally got rewarded. During a strong shift with linemates Kevin Hayes and Hagelin, he set up the Rangers’ fourth goal. Hayes came out with the puck from behind the net and passed for Duclair, who passed in front for a Hagelin finish. It was his fifth. He’s quietly played well despite working with first-year players. A credit to how hard he works. As for Duclair, he also went back at P.K. Subban earning matching slashes following a collision with Tokarski. The kid is feisty.

Throughout, I sat next to three Canadiens fans in the last row of Section 419. I counted seven in our section. Even though their team was outclassed, they stayed and continued showing support. I had a nice dialogue with my Habs contingent on the game, Subban and Prust. One thing about Montreal fans, they are as diehard as it gets. I loved seeing one fan draped in a classic maroon red Canadien flag. Their enthusiasm was a bright spot on an otherwise bad game. Sure. The Rangers won. But it wasn’t competitive. As one fan remarked next to me, “At least lose with dignity.”

For the Rangers, they did what they had to and have outscored opponents 7-0 during the two wins. The next one is a little tougher with a visit to Tampa on Turkey Eve. They owe them one following that no show in Ryan Callahan’s return. Below is a classic scene from Major League II. Win that one and that’s called a winning streak. It has happened before.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Kevin Klein, NYR (4 hits, fight, +3 in 21 shifts-15:39)

2nd Star-Chris Kreider, NYR (2 assists, team-leading 7 SOG, 5 hits, +2 in 16:06)

1st Star-Marty St. Louis, NYR (8th of season, assist, +2 in 16:37)

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Devils’ Western Canada trip microcosm of their season

Scott Clemmensen making a save in last night’s shootout, which the Devils wound up losing anyway (NJ.com)

Last night may have provided the perfect symbolism for two ships passing in the night.  While the Islanders completed a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins that lifted a previously hapless team into first place, the Devils continue to stumble every time they try to surge back into playoff position.  New Jersey’s entire season – and really the entirety of their last three years under Pete DeBoer can be encapsulated in the last three games.  There was a no-show performance in Winnipeg where the Jets’ speed once again ran us off the ice, followed by a good shutout win in Edmonton which combined with the first 57 minutes in Calgary provided enough of an illusion to think this team was about to make a run…then BAM yet another blown multi-goal lead, yet another shootout loss and once again the Devils are running in place.

Some people might think three points out of six are good enough heading into Vancouver, especially when you compare it to our lost weekend last year where we got only one point the entire western Canada swing…however, settling for mediocrity is part of the problem around here.  As Martin Brodeur accurately said last year, the mentality of hanging around .500 and hoping to make a run has infected this entire organization, as evidenced by a couple of DeBoer quotes from this week which really bothered me.  After the dreadful no-show in Winnipeg on Tuesday, DeBoer actually had the nerve to suggest we played ‘a good road first period’.  How anyone – much less the head coach – could ever suggest that we had a good period by any standard when we had four shots on goal in twenty minutes (outshot 9-4) and took back-to-back penalties is mind-boggling.  Why you would even want to sugar-coat a game where the Devils were outshot 23-9 in the first two periods, were horrible even-strength and showed little sign of life until Patrik Elias’s power play goal in the third period is troubling in itself.

Not to mention even after admitting last night’s (latest) blown lead fiasco in Calgary was a game that should have been won, DeBoer showed he was out of touch with reality with the following snippet after being asked whether blown leads have become a pattern:

“You guys are always looking for patterns,” DeBoer said. “There’s no pattern. This team (Calgary) has come back on lots of teams before. We’ve got some young guys at key positions and we’re learning how to win games.”

First of all, there IS a pattern of blown leads (and many times multi-goal ones at that) no matter how much Pete wants to plug his ears and deny reality or get defensive against the media for merely pointing out what everyone with two eyes can see.  When you win only half your games after scoring first – 6-4-2 when getting the first goal – that’s a clear sign of a problem.  And the ‘young guys in key positions’ excuse is a canard, particularly last night.  Last time I checked, Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr weren’t young guys but both had horrid turnovers that led to goals, with Jagr’s mistake particularly egregious giving away the puck in the middle of the ice causing a breakout that led to the Flames’ tying goal with just seconds remaining.  Andy Greene isn’t a ‘young’ guy and he was a -3 last night, on the ice for every single goal against.  Bryce Salvador isn’t a young guy and the PK was awful with him in the lineup, but now has been sensational with Adam Larsson (a young guy) taking his spot on the PK; last night’s goal against excepted the team killed off its first 20 or so penalties with the new lineup.  To even cite the fact we were playing young guys is missing the boat that the vets aren’t pulling their weight on.  Of course selective accountability has been part of Pete’s problems the last few years.

Being content with mediocrity has even extended to the broadcast booth, which was more concerned over celebrating the fact Elias finally ended a seventeen-game goal drought in Winnipeg after a scoring change than with dissecting the actual bad performance by the team in general.  I love Patty but I could give a hoot about that goal at that point in time.  Maybe during the game I would have been happy for him but not after a dreadful 3-1 loss was in the books.  Elias’s whole season’s been poor to this point with just two goals, eleven points and a -6 in 21 games and he’s the first to admit that, evidenced by a very revealing quote the other day when he was asked about the booing goaltender Cory Schneider got toward the end of the Devils’ last homestand (before he ended his own goal drought) Elias said something to the effect of ‘they shouldn’t be booing him…they should be booing me’.  While it’s nice one of the big names is willing to take accountability there should be more of it demanded from the top, coming from above Patty, Cory or any of the other players.  Settling for the same old nonsense for a third straight year is inexcusable.

I’m not even going to bother recapping much of what’s happened this week…what’s the point?  I’ve already spent way too much time on this team in the last 48 hours, after vowing to watch part of the game last night and tape the rest to watch in the morning of course I got sucked in once the Devils took three seperate two-goal leads.  And then of course after the latest blown lead fiasco and shootout loss I only got half a night’s worth of sleep.  I’m not going to make that mistake again Tuesday with a West Coast weeknight start.  At least Cory finally got ‘some’ rest himself last night as the Devils picked the Calgary game to finally start a backup goaltender, and with it being Scott Clemmensen poor Keith Kinkaid’s left to stew once again in the AHL though his game hasn’t come back since being demoted to Albany.  Ironically Clemmensen was good enough for the most part despite the four goals against and looking shaky at times, it still should have been a winning effort before the Devils collapsed and gave up two empty-net goals in the final 2:30 including Curtis Glencross tying the game with just five seconds remaining.  Goalies, defense and forwards may change but blown leads are still a fact of life with Pete DeBoer teams.

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“First Place Islanders” Sweep Penguins On Billy Smith Night

Islanders great Billy Smith drops the ceremonial first puck with John Tavares and Sidney Crosby at center ice. AP Photo by Kathy Kmonicek/Getty Images

Islanders great Billy Smith drops the ceremonial first puck with John Tavares and Sidney Crosby at center ice.
AP Photo by Kathy Kmonicek/Getty Images

On a night they honored one of their all-time greats, the Islanders delivered an impressive 4-1 win before an energized Nassau Coliseum to sweep a home-and-home series from the Penguins. They followed up a 5-4 shootout triumph by scoring four unanswered to move into first place.

”The atmosphere was incredible,” coach Jack Capuano said after seeing his team improve to 14-6-0- the franchise’s best start since 1987-88. ”We played the Islander way.”

”We made high percentage plays and did a good job of matching their speed. We managed the puck well, and we played a smart game.”

With four-time Stanley Cup winning netminder Billy Smith on hand, they didn’t disappoint. Smith loved what he saw even joining MSG’s broadcast late in the second with Howie Rose and former teammate Butch Goring. As luck would have it, the Islanders tied the game when Matt Martin rebounded home a Cal Clutterbuck shot with 1:59 left. Casey Cizikas got the other helper. That it came from the fourth line felt appropriate. It was that trio that provided a spark with physical play that got the crowd into it.

On one shift, Clutterbuck, Martin and defenseman Travis Hamonic delivered big hits. Hamonic also dropped the gloves going with Pens antagonist Steve Downie earlier. After falling behind on a Evgeni Malkin goal from Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, the Islanders rallied with a strong second. Upping the ante, they were more aggressive outshooting the Pens 13-7. For nearly two periods, Pittsburgh backup Thomas Greiss held them off. He was strong finishing with 31 saves in a losing effort. Eventually, the Islander pressure allowed them to seize control.

”We’re a group that really pulls for each other,” Martin said after tallying in his 300th career NHL game. ”To hear the crowd behind us like that adds a lot to our confidence.”

It was all Islanders in the third. Off some heady play from Ryan Strome, Anders Lee deflected home a Lubomir Visnovsky point shot at 2:38 to give them the lead. Thomas Hickey drew the other assist. A few minutes later, they killed a Hickey penalty after he held Malkin. With Jaroslav Halak doing the job in net with 27 saves for his sixth consecutive win, they put the game out of reach thanks to some foolishness from Downie. He took down Hickey sending them on the power play. He also earned a misconduct for the shenanigans. The Isles made him pay with textbook passing from John Tavares to Kyle Okposo to Brock Nelson for an easy finish.

Nelson’s team-leading 10th led to chants of “First Place,” “First Place,” from the crowd. The chants grew when Tavares padded the lead. His eighth off came from Johnny Boychuk and Nikolay Kulemin increasing to 4-1 with 4:14 remaining. On the play, Kulemin fed Boychuk for a shot that caromed off Greiss right to Tavares for a tap in. Afterwards, the Islanders captain alluded to the close rivalry they have with the Pens since a closely fought first round series in 2013.

Certainly the rivalry is right up there with the Rangers,” he stated. ”It’s exciting for us and for our fans.

”We didn’t have a good third period, and they raised their game,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said after being held off the score sheet for a second consecutive game. ”They were more intense than we were in the back-to-back.”

At 14-6-0 with 28 points, the Islanders are tied with the Pens for first in the Metropolitan Division. Pittsburgh has one game in hand. What matters is that the Islanders are not only competitive but look like the most improved team in the conference. They’ve now won three in a row and eight of their last nine. Ever since they took the last three on that five game road trip, they’ve been a different team. Given the depth up front along with improvement on the blueline and in goal, they have to be taken seriously. In their final year on Long Island, pride has been restored.

Billy Smith leads the Islanders out on his special night. AP Photo by Kathy Kmonicek/Getty Images

Billy Smith leads the Islanders out on his special night.
AP Photo by Kathy Kmonicek/Getty Images

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Travis Hamonic, NYI (2 hits, 2 blocked shots, fight in 17:31)

2nd Star-John Tavares, NYI (8th of season, assist, 8-and-6 on draws in 19:03)

1st Star-Matt Martin, NYI (2nd of season, 4 hits, +1 in 18 shifts-11:44)

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