A rivalry was renewed before a sellout crowd of 15,795 at Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn. The third installment of the Battle of New York was won by the Islanders in the trenches. They halted the Rangers’ six-game win streak by posting a well earned 4-2 win on home ice.
It amounted to a big victory for the Islanders, who find themselves in a tight battle with the idle Maple Leafs for the second wildcard. In doubling up their Manhattan rivals, they pulled within one point of Toronto. Under interim coach Doug Weight, they improved to 9-3-2. With still 26 games remaining, they’re in much better shape to qualify for a second straight postseason.
Dating back to a 4-0 shutout at Boston on Jan. 16 in former coach Jack Capuano’s final game, they’re 10-3-2 for 22 of a possible 30 points. Making up so much ground allowed them to go from last in the East to ninth in very methodical fashion. Now, they have finally passed the fading Flyers for fifth in the ultra competitive Metro Division. Philadelphia was losing big to Edmonton. Their fall continues.
As for the wildcard chase, it appears the the Islanders and Leafs will be vying for the final spot in the East. Each team has 26 games left. Both are tied in ROW with 25 regulation/overtime wins. The Leafs’ blowout 7-1 rout of the Isles last time out is the difference. The season series went to the Islanders, who won once in regulation and once in overtime to finish 2-1-0.
Interestingly, no team is mathematically out of it. Even 15th Detroit remains nine points out with 25 left. But they are a long shot to keep their playoff streak alive. They only have 16 ROW and are without Jimmy Howard and Mike Green. The Lightning have 57 points with 26 remaining and only 22 ROW. Unless either Ben Bishop or Andrei Vasilevskiy gets hot, it’s unlikely they’ll make it despite only trailing by six. The Canes and Devils look like pretenders. Carolina has faded with 55 points despite 29 left and only 22 ROW. New Jersey had played better lately but were shut down by the boring Senators 3-0 and remain at 58 with 21 ROW and 25 to go.
So, that leaves the struggling Flyers, inconsistent Panthers and unpredictable Sabres. Florida is healthy finally. So, they could make a push. They’re at 60 with 27 left despite 22 ROW. Buffalo already played game 58 earning a 2-0 win over lowly Colorado to reach 60. They do have 24 ROW but fewer games remaining.
It really looks like the Islanders are gonna make it. For a long time, they didn’t have the look of a playoff team. But under Weight, things have changed. Led by captain John Tavares, who set up Nikolay Kulemin’s game-winning shorthanded goal and Andrew Ladd’s resurgence, here they are. Ladd scored twice including the empty netter to raise his goal total to 14.
Thomas Greiss overcame a shaky first to finish with 25 saves for his 18th win in his 31st start. He recovered from being pulled after allowing six to the Leafs. The Isles will go as far as the 31-year old German veteran will take them. With Jaroslav Halak no longer around and Jean-Francois Berube an unproven backup, it’s Greiss who’s the man in BK.
In the third meeting of four between bitter rivals, the Rangers drew first blood. Thanks to a good Brady Skjei outlet that trapped a couple of Islanders, a patient Mats Zuccarello waited before passing across for a wide open Nick Holden, who beat Greiss upstairs to convert a two-on-one for his ninth at 6:23. The former Avalanche defenseman had just emerged from the penalty box and got free where Zuccarello found him. Holden continues to be a big story for the Blueshirts.
The Rangers played without Kevin Klein, who was a late scratch. Extra defenseman Adam Clendening dressed in his place and paired mostly with Skjei. Alain Vigneault made a switch in the final part of the third period flipping Clendening with Marc Staal and Skjei up with Holden in search for more offense. It nearly worked.
Following a weird first period in which the teams combined for only a dozen shots, it was the Islanders who took control by outscoring the Rangers 2-0 in a much better second. They capitalized on Ranger mistakes. First, it was the dangerous top line of Tavares, Josh Bailey and leading sniper Anders Lee who got full advantage of a favorable match-up against the Rangers’ third pair and fourth line. The end result was Bailey feeding a vacated Lee in front for his 22nd tying the score at 2:43.
Another Ranger mistake resulted in the second straight Islander goal. This time Staal was victimized by an aggressive Stephen Gionta. The smaller forward with the big hard finished his check and took Staal off the puck. He then made a nice backhand feed for an open Ladd, who buried his first of the game past Henrik Lundqvist 3:41 later. It was an all out hustle play from a gritty vet. It was also the worst Staal has looked all season.
Despite the Rangers holding an 11-9 edge in shots, they didn’t get many grade A looks. One such chance from revelation Michael Grabner was thwarted by Greiss prior to Lee’s tying marker. He was perfectly set up by J.T. Miller in front but Greiss robbed the former Islander. That save was huge.
In the second half of the stanza, the Islanders got themselves into penalty trouble. Following an odd coincidental minor between Thomas Hickey for cross-checking and Rick Nash for goalie interference, Bailey took two bad penalties. The first was a hooking minor which the Isles’ penalty kill easily killed off. The Rangers power play has really had a rough go of it lately. It continued.
The second Bailey penalty was foolish. Going for a big hit on Ryan McDonagh in the neutral zone, he got his stick up and bloodied the Rangers captain earning a double minor with nine seconds left. Following a clean Tavares win and clear, that left the Rangers with 3:49 to work with for the start of the third.
Part one was awful. Full credit to an aggressive Islanders kill which pressured a sloppy Rangers power play unit of five. Tavares created one chance that missed. Then McDonagh turned the puck over and watched along with the other four Rangers as Tavares kept the play alive and slipped the puck in front to Kulemin for a shorthanded goal at 3:03 that made it 3-1. The other four Blueshirts were Miller, Kevin Hayes, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, who had a very ineffective game except for one point blank opportunity late which Greiss snuffed out.
The most noticeable Ranger was resurgent rookie Jimmy Vesey, who answered Kulemin’s goal 43 seconds later for a power play goal that cut the Islander lead to 3-2 with 16:14 left. He was all over the ice coming close a couple of times before finally getting to a loose puck in front and beating Greiss, who was contacted by Nash due to a Johnny Boychuk cross check. Even though Weight protested and challenged, the video review confirmed that Nash’s stick made no contact with Greiss before Boychuk’s cross check which should’ve been a penalty.
Somewhat curiously, the Isles tried to kill their own goalie. Three separate times, Islanders shoved attacking Rangers into Greiss. Another instance came when Derek Stepan stole the puck and went hard to the net but was taken out by Dennis Seidenberg crashing into Greiss, who was annoyed.
Even with more pressure, the Rangers were unable to get the equalizer. Greiss stood tall turning aside 10 of 11 shots to backstop his resurgent team to its second victory in three meetings against their closest rival. The final meeting takes place on March 22 at MSG. It’s a shame they don’t play more. But that’s what the NHL wants.
Notes: The Islanders play the Devils twice in a classic home-and-home series on 2/18-19. They visit Newark on Saturday and then return home Sunday. After that, they hit the road for nine in a row. That road trip will go a long way to determining their playoff fate. … The Rangers get the next two days off before hosting NHL leader Washington for one of those annoying NBC 12:30 games. The Canadiens visit two days later with new coach Claude Julien. … As expected, Pavel Buchnevich sat out with Matt Puempel replacing him on the fourth line. He was effective creating a chance for Oscar Lindberg, who was denied by Greiss. But the line went minus-two and Puempel only played 7:58 in 10 shifts. … The Isles won 32 of 53 face-offs led by Casey Cizikas (10-and-2). Stepan went 12-and-5 for the Rangers. … The teams combined for 24 giveaways speaking to how sloppy it was. … Lundqvist finished with 20 saves in defeat but made some gems including denying Jason Chimera on a breakaway.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Andrew Ladd, NYI (2 goals-13th, 14th-continues to turn season around)
2nd Star-John Tavares, NYI (2 assists including great individual effort for Kulemin’s shorthanded winner)
1st Star-Thomas Greiss, NYI (25 saves incl. 21/22 last 2 periods)