Jaroslav Halak stood tall in the second installment of the Battle of New York. He was the number one star making 36 saves to highlight an Islanders’ 4-2 home win over the Rangers before a 15,795 at Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn.
As usual, Halak was at his best in backstopping the Islanders to their fourth win in the last five. (4-0-1). They have been playing better of late. That continued thanks to Halak, who defeated counterpart Henrik Lundqvist for the 11th time in the last 12 head-to-head meetings. One goalie was poised throughout while the other was shaky despite making some big stops to give his team a chance.
”It’s always important to win games,” the Isles’ winning netminder said. ”Beating the division rivals, it’s always huge for us, it’s always a four-point game. Coming out with two points against the Rangers is always a fun game to play.”
Halak was more consistent. He was particularly good in a busy first period. He bailed out his team who were shorthanded three times. That included a huge kill of a questionable high-sticking double minor on Brock Nelson. Nelson got his stick up on Matt Puempel, who was going for a big hit. Instead, he wound up injured on the play and stayed down on the ice for a few minutes before being helped off. He didn’t return.
As for the call, the refs gave Nelson an extra two due to the injury. His stick didn’t draw blood. I’ve never seen that called before. It was obviously a mistake. However, the Islanders can thank Halak for killing off both ends of the four minute penalty. He was at his best turning aside Mats Zuccarello and other Blueshirts, who couldn’t get the puck past him. Halak stopped all 16 shots with more than half on the Ranger power play. He took everything away down low.
While Halak took care of his end, Lundqvist gave up a couple of bad goals. Especially the first which came off the stick of emergency call up Scott Mayfield. He played in place of Johnny Boychuk, who missed the game due to flu like symptoms. Mayfield’s goal came from a bad angle. Taking a Anders Lee back pass along the boards, he fired a slap shot that beat an unscreened Lundqvist to the glove side for his first at 7:03. Cal Clutterbuck, who did some good board work, also was credited with an assist following the period.
Despite pressuring the Islander penalty kill for long stretches and forcing Halak into some tough saves, the Rangers were unable to tie the contest. With time winding down on the four-minute man-advantage, a crucial mistake led directly to the Isles’ second goal. Kevin Hayes threw a back pass to a vacated point trapping three other teammates. That left Brady Skjei back to cover two players. He switched to Nelson but was too late with Nelson’s centering pass deflecting off and Jason Chimera for a two-goal Islander lead with 2:36 remaining in the first.
The second was up and down. The Rangers got the start they wanted with rookie Jimmy Vesey getting them on the board in the first minute. Rick Nash fired a tough shot on Halak, who let out a rebound that Vesey pounced on for his ninth at 57 seconds. Nash would not last much longer exiting after tweaking his groin. Figure him to be out for Thursday’s game at Winnipeg. That’s a bad break for the Rangers because he’s been playing some of his best hockey.
Momentum can change in an instant. You can have it and then lose it in the blink of an eye. That’s what happened to the Blueshirts. Following Vesey’s goal, a brutal Islander turnover inside their own blue line allowed J.T. Miller to get a mini-break on Halak. But with him seeming to have Halak beaten, he just missed wide. Not long after, a neutral zone turnover and some more Lundqvist folly allowed Andrew Ladd to score his third into an open net to restore a two-goal lead at 2:18.
The play can best be described as ugly. From a Ranger perspective, they did a lot wrong. Hartford emergency call up Marek Hrivik turned the puck over to Shane Prince. Hrivik was up due to Michael Grabner flying home to Austria for his grandmother’s funeral. For the most part, he played well. But the turnover became a nightmare with Lundqvist falling down and taking himself out of position. That allowed Prince to easily set up Ladd for a lay-up. It was another case of a confused Lundqvist doing too much. His confidence looks shot. He’s been caught off balance a lot.
With Nash leaving the contest and Puempel already gone, that left coach Alain Vigneault with 10 forwards. Forced to juggle his lines, he came up with a winning one by moving Miller back up to the top unit with Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan. The Team USA line combined to set up Marc Staal on what was some textbook passing with Staal sniping his third past Halak to cut it to 3-2 with 11:06 remaining. Staal has been playing some of his best hockey in ages. He’s doing a lot right and is back to jumping in offensively.
Though they were down two skaters, the Rangers had plenty of opportunities to tie the game. The difference was Halak, who denied them time and again. He was tough to beat and continued his mastery over Lundqvist. In their last 12 meetings, Halak is 11-1 with a 1.56 goals-against-average and .954 save percentage. Over that same stretch, Lundqvist fell to 1-10-1 with a 3.42 GAA and .890 save percentage.
Credit Halak for being better than Lundqvist. A trend that’s continued since he joined the Islanders in ’14-15. He steps up in these big match-ups. Why Lundqvist doesn’t is a mystery. He did win the first meeting in the season opener at MSG on Oct. 13 making 25 saves in a 5-3 win. But that’s it.
”You gotta score those timely goals and we didn’t do it tonight,” Vigneault said. ”We had the looks. I thought we battled hard. We tried to come back but their goalie without a doubt was the best player on the ice tonight and we didn’t finish on our opportunities.”
When the Rangers weren’t getting shots on Halak, his teammates were sacrificing for the cause by blocking 27 shots including a game high seven from Calvin de Haan and six from Travis Hamonic, who robbed Stepan in the first. In contrast, the Rangers as a team blocked six total shots. They outshot the Islanders 38-32 and out-attempted them 77-44. It wasn’t enough to win.
If there was another major difference, it came on special teams. The Rangers were blanked in six power play chances. The Islanders converted on 1-for-2 with both coming in the third period. After easily killing off a Miller hooking minor with Vigneault using different players including Hrivik, Oscar Lindberg and even Zuccarello, Brandon Pirri was sent to the box for a questionable hooking minor. Prior to it, Lundqvist flat out robbed Nelson point blank. He made some great saves including a nice glove stop on Clutterbuck but never seemed comfortable.
On the ensuing Islander power play, they did a great job setting up captain John Tavares, who scored only his seventh to make it 4-2 with 8:48 left in regulation. With the Ranger penalty kill leaving enough room across the box, Nick Leddy fed Josh Bailey, who made a great cross ice feed for a wide open Tavares at the right circle. He stepped in and let go of a laser which beat Lundqvist glove side inside the near goalpost. A terrific shot by a great player who should not have seven goals at this stage. Shame on Garth Snow for allowing Tavares’ linemate Kyle Okposo go. Utterly ridiculous that Tavares has seven goals thru 25 games.
His seventh goal was enough to put the Rangers away. Though they threatened, they never could get back in it. The refs also let a lot go on both sides. Vesey took a vicious slash that went undetected. He stayed in the game. They were too busy calling hooks and giving Nelson an extra two for no reason. This is the substandard officiating you get. The same that ignores a Canuck shoving Travis Zajac from behind into the boards bloodying his nose and then hands Vancouver a two-man advantage in a game the Devils won.
Even after Vigneault rightly pulled Lundqvist for an extra attacker, his team wasn’t aware that there was a delayed call on Thomas Hickey for cross checking Kreider in front. Had they realized it, maybe they would’ve given up the puck sooner. Instead, they were too busy passing and back passing costing valuable time. The pass fest continued with Hamonic off for a slash which handed the Rangers a 6-on-3 with 32 seconds left. They didn’t need one. But two. Instead, all they did was handle the puck like a grenade until the buzzer sounded. Just brutal.
The more determined team won with the better goalie. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t been paying attention. Something isn’t right with Lundqvist. I’m losing faith. I’m not alone here. It’s getting harder and harder to defend him. He’s been the Rangers’ franchise goalie for over a decade. But his numbers are down. Maybe it’s time for Antti Raanta to play a couple in a row and let Lundqvist work out his issues with goalie coach Benoit Allaire.
He now is down to a 2.55 GAA and pedestrian .912 save percentage. You can’t blame the defense for all of that. Simply put, he hasn’t been good enough. Inconsistency is showing. At 34 and in his 12th season, you have to wonder what’s wrong. He’s been through slumps before. We’ll see if he can figure it out. If not, the Rangers have no chance. Other teams in the division are closing fast. There is no longer much margin for error.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Jimmy Vesey, Rangers (goal-9th of season, 4 shots, 6 attempts, -1 in 23 shifts-16:40)
2nd Star-John Tavares, Islanders (power play goal-7th of season, 4 shots, 4 takeaways, 11-and-7 on face-offs in 23 shifts-18:45)
1st Star-Jaroslav Halak, Islanders (36 saves including 16/16 in 1st and all 11 in 3rd to improve to 11-1 with a 1.56 GAA and .954 save percentage in last 12 meetings against Lundqvist)
Notes: Puempel took only five shifts logging 2:52 of ice-time before leaving due to sustaining a concussion on Nelson’s high-stick. Assuming he’s out Thursday, Josh Jooris should be back in. … Nash (assist) finished minus-two in 14 shifts (8:13) with five shots before exiting. … The pairing of Skjei (-3) and Kevin Klein (-2) had a nightmarish game. Klein only played 12:59 all at even strength while Skjei received 14:51 including 2:55 of power play. … Ryan McDonagh led all skaters with 28:03 of ice-time in 27 shifts including 6:27 on the PP. By comparison, Isles coach Jack Capuano gave four of his six D over 20 minutes with Hamonic pacing them with 23:21 including 4:28 shorthanded. Leddy (21:39), De Haan (20:04) and Dennis Seidenberg (20:19) also went over 20. … The game was the Isles’ second sellout of the season. … By going 4-0-1 in their last five, the Islanders are back to NHL .500 with a 10-10-5 record. They’re tied with Carolina in points (25) and trail a wildcard pack led by the Flyers (33), Caps (31) and Devils (30). … Islanders finish a three-game home stand by hosting the Blues Thursday.