Islanders beat Rangers again to pull even


John Tavares

Islanders’ captain John Tavares celebrates with teammates after scoring an empty net goal in a 4-1 win over the Rangers. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

The effort was better this time but it again had a familiar end result. For the fourth time this season, the Rangers fell to their most bitter rival. After getting dominated for long stretches, the Islanders erupted for three goals late in the second period to earn a 4-1 win at MSG.

It marked the first time in franchise history that the Islanders swept a season series against their Manhattan rival. They won all four meetings. They took three of four in regulation including both games at 33rd and 7th over Penn Station. The Rangers’ lone point came in a shootout loss on Dec. 2 in Brooklyn.

By winning the final match-up on Thursday, it allowed the Islanders to pull into a tie for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Each team has 99 points. The Rangers hold the first tiebreaker with 42 ROW to the Isles’ 40. However, the Isles have two games remaining while the Blueshirts have one. Simply put, they must outpoint the Rangers to finish third and draw the second place Penguins, who wrapped up home ice for the first round with an overtime win over the Capitals.

The Isles can also claim third with a Ranger loss to the desperate Red Wings Saturday afternoon and one point earned against either the Sabres or Flyers this weekend. In the event both teams win Saturday, then Sunday’s Islander home game against the equally desperate Flyers would determine who finishes third and who gets the first wildcard and draws the Atlantic Division champion Panthers. In the event that the Rangers got two points Saturday and the Islanders lost in regulation, it would be a first round rematch against the Pens.

At this point, it doesn’t matter. What does is that even when they had control of the game at five-on-five, the Rangers couldn’t beat Isles’ backup Thomas Greiss. They certainly had their chances with a large edge in puck possession. They out-shot the Islanders by a combined 28-16 the first two periods. Credit Greiss for being good. He finished with 36 saves and came within 2:48 of a shutout before Kevin Klein scored.

The issue was time and again, they were unable to do what was required. Sure. They won battles. But most of the shots were from the perimeter. Not many Blueshirts got to the rebounds or got their sticks on the puck for deflections. Overall, it was their best effort against the Islanders in the four games. But there was no finish. Not from Rick Nash, who continues to struggle. Not from Derick Brassard, who’s been a bit streaky. Eric Staal’s line with Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast was the most effective. Staal had a game high seven shots. Fast misfired on a good opportunity.

As usual, the power play came up empty against a quality opponent that kills penalties well. Sure. It’s been a bright spot since Keith Yandle joined the top unit. But against the Isles’ aggressive style, they were abysmal. The Rangers went 0-for-4. They were way too passive looking for the perfect play against a well schooled unit. The Isles had better chances shorthanded. It was tough on the eyes.

For over half the game, it was mostly Rangers. But a couple of hiccups in the defensive zone tilted it in the Islanders’ direction. They had enough support from their fans, who had more reason to cheer even if it’s probably unwise to play Pittsburgh.

Shane Prince tipped home a Marek Zidlicky shot past Henrik Lundqvist to break a scoreless tie with 6:32 left in the second. The goal followed Fast’s missed chance at the other end. If only the second-year Swede who was awarded Player’s Player had better hands. It was point blank and he missed by a wide margin. Eventually, the Isles worked the puck down low. Steve Bernier drew two Rangers leading to a wide open Zidlicky firing for a Prince redirect in front.

It was the kind of blown coverage that’s been a recurring theme for this team. The man-to-man defense that Vigneault plays hasn’t worked. There have been too many instances where the defensemen and forwards haven’t been on the same page. How many times do we have to see two Rangers go to one man leaving a shooter wide open with Lundqvist exposed? On Prince’s tally, it was the top line with rookie Brady Skjei and Dan Boyle who got victimized. What it comes down to is a failure to communicate.

Before they fell apart in the final minute and a half, the Rangers got back to controlling the tempo. That included some more shots fired on Greiss that he stopped. It was quite frustrating. Nobody could bury one. It was just not their night. Even when they created chances and did a good job, nothing went in.

The conclusion of the second was an unmitigated nightmare. It was embarrassing. First, Casey Cizikas scored on his own deflection from Prince and Brock Nelson, giving the Isles a 2-0 lead with 1:22 left. So, I figured that would be it. But as I started to head over to visit my friend on the Bridges, Keith Yandle took a ill advised tripping minor 17 seconds later. As if it wasn’t bad enough, Frans Nielsen finished off his 20th from John Tavares and Kyle Okposo for a 3-0 cushion with 15 seconds to go.

What made it so discouraging is that not one of the four Ranger penalty killers thought it was a good idea to pick up Nielsen in front. I was standing on an angle up top and watched him stand in the same spot until Tavares fed the puck for a easy one-timer past Lundqvist. It was awful.

That was it for Lundqvist, who was replaced by backup Antti Raanta at the start of the third. His night again ended too soon, allowing three goals on 16 shots. Over his last 10 starts, he has been pulled three times including two in the last four. According to my tally, Lundqvist has now been pulled nine times. I can’t remember that ever happening before. A disturbing trend. Since March 3 vs Pit, he has been pulled four times.

In all honesty, if Lundqvist doesn’t raise his level next week, it doesn’t matter if it’s Pittsburgh or Florida. Without him being at his absolute peak, this team can’t get out of the first round. It’s not sustainable. A word that’s been tossed around quite often by other resident Ranger bloggers on Twitter.

Simply put, the current state of the defense is in shambles. Daily News scribe Pat Leonard spoke to WFAN’s Steve Somers earlier tonight. With Ryan McDonagh unavailable for the third straight game tomorrow and for probably a good chunk of the first round, they’re without their anchor. The injury to Dan Girardi from Brian Boyle’s shove from behind doesn’t help. Say what you will about him but Girardi has always stepped it up in crunch time. They’re terming the injury “upper body” and listing him as day-to-day.

We know better. Girardi landed awkwardly losing his balance and hit his head into the boards. I don’t care if he’s related to Clark Kent. Even Superman is vulnerable. Subtract McDonagh and Girardi and it becomes a much more difficult challenge.

For a second game in a row, both Skjei and Dylan McIlrath played. Vigneault even gave McIlrath over 16 minutes in 24 shifts. Skjei played 15:36 in 24 shifts. Vets Dan Boyle, Kevin Klein and Marc Staal all received over 21 minutes while Yandle got 19:18. Nobody was overplayed. That’s a good thing especially with the playoffs guaranteed. The question is what if this team must do this with Skjei and McIlrath playing key roles.

Every team has injuries. Look at the Lightning. They have been decimated. No Stamkos and no Stralman. The Pens are doing this with rookie goalie Matt Murray. Fleury remains out with a concussion and Malkin remains out. The Isles were without Travis Hamonic, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. They also lost Anders Lee to a serious injury tonight.

In order for the Rangers to have any success this postseason, every player must step up. The injury excuse isn’t one at this time of year. Whatever happens, let the chips fall where it may.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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