Game Preview: Desperation time for Islanders in visit at Rangers


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The Islanders will be desperate for a win at MSG against the Rangers as they battle the Leafs for the final wildcard. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

Tonight marks the final regular season meeting between bitter New York rivals the Islanders and Rangers. The big game will take place at MSG in an NBC Sports Network exclusive on Rivalry Night. That means the later start time of 8:10 PM. Something I could do without. But it will definitely have emotion and impact in the standings.

While the Rangers enter the second game of a back-to-back with Antti Raanta starting yet again comfortably locked into the first wildcard with 94 points, the Islanders find themselves in desperation mode. They had played so well under interim coach Doug Weight that it looked like the playoffs were a foregone conclusion. But a recent slip in play has cost them valuable points. They enter play having lost four of five only gaining three of a possible 10 points.

That’s allowed the Maple Leafs to take over the lead for the second wildcard. With Toronto able to post some big wins, they’re up to 81 points. Three ahead of the Islanders with each team having 11 games remaining. If you’re wondering about the first tiebreaker, both clubs have 32 ROW (regulation/overtime wins). They don’t play each other again. The Isles took the season series 2-1. But it won’t matter if they don’t beat Toronto out.

There are only three games on tap tonight. One includes the Leafs at the Blue Jackets. A game of interest to the Islanders. That one starts an hour earlier. If you don’t think they’ll be scoreboard watching, you’re wrong. They’ll have the corner of their eyes on it while doing what they usually do at MSG. Win an important game.

So far, the home team has won all three games in the season series. The Rangers prevailed on home ice back on 10/13 winning 5-3. The Islanders took the two meetings in Brooklyn winning by identical 4-2 scores on 12/6 and 2/16. Andrew Ladd leads the series with three goals including two in last month’s meeting at Barclays Center. John Tavares and Josh Bailey each have three points. Chris Kreider leads the Rangers with three points which tie him with rookie defenseman Brady Skjei. Jimmy Vesey has two goals in the series.

It won’t be Henrik Lundqvist in net against the Islanders. They’ve lit him up for 10 goals on 82 shots in 176 minutes. It’ll be Raanta, who has continued to play well since Lundqvist went down. With the starter close to returning when the Rangers head to California, this will be Raanta’s seventh consecutive start. He enters with a career high 15 wins with a 2.32 GAA, .920 save percentage with a team best three shutouts. As a starter, he’s 15-5-2 with a 2.19 GAA, .926 save percentage and three shutouts in 24 games.

Thomas Greiss has been a workhorse for the Islanders. The problem is he might be wearing down. Over his last 10 games, he’s given up four goals in half and at least three in seven. In other words, Greiss has slowed down. It’s tough having to start every game when your backup is unproven. Maybe the rest over the past few days will help. This is the first Islanders game since Mar. 18 which was a tough 3-2 overtime loss at home to the Blue Jackets. Greiss has still had a successful season posting a new career high in wins (24), shutouts (3) with a 2.69 GAA and .913 save percentage. His 44 starts and 46 games are career bests.

Tavares leads the team in scoring with 61 points (27-34-61). The top line featuring him, Josh Bailey (12-37-49) and Anders Lee (26-16-42) are dangerous. Actually, they made a switch with Ladd now replacing Lee on the first line. Lee will work with rookie Joshua Ho-Sang and rookie Anthony Beavillier. Since his recall, Ho-Sang has shown potential with three goals and three assists in 10 games. The former first round pick has great wheels and lots of skill. It’ll be his introduction to the rivalry. Here are the projected lines:

Ladd-Tavares-Bailey

Lee-Beauvillier-Ho-Sang

Nelson-Strome-Chimera

Kulemin-Cizikas-Clutterbuck

The Islanders are still minus defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who was on the ice for a third straight day after not skating for two weeks. Nick Leddy anchors the back end. His 39 points rank fourth in team scoring just ahead of Nelson’s 38. After him, it really drops off from an offensive standpoint. You knew Dennis Seidenberg would cool down. Calvin de Haan remains a budding shutdown defenseman capable of contributing. He blocks shots and will see plenty of key shifts. Travis Hamonic has been a disaster with a minus-20 rating in 44 games. Thomas Hickey remains underrated. He sat out last game with both Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield playing.

If there’s one thing the Isles do, it’s forecheck. They have always given the Rangers fits in these rivalry games with their strong work ethic. They usually win the battles in the corners and out-hustle the Rangers. The Rangers need any combination of seven points to clinch an 11th postseason in 12 years. That’s any combo of games won with Islander losses. So, if they can match the Isles’ urgency and win in regulation, they could really do damage to their playoff hopes.

Alain Vigneault indicated that there will be some lineup decisions based on warm ups. If there are no changes, here are the projected lines:

Kreider-Stepan-Zuccarello

Nash-Zibanejad-Miller

Grabner-Hayes-Fast

Vesey-Lindberg-Buchnevich

McDonagh-Staal

Smith-Holden

Skjei-Clendening

Raanta

Dan Girardi is ready to return. It’s just a matter of when the Rangers decide to take him off the IR. Given that it’s the Islanders, does Tanner Glass make a cameo for Buchnevich? Hard to do with Buchnevich fitting in on the Kids Line. What about reuniting Miller with Hayes and Grabner? Hayes isn’t as effective without J.T. Miller has been working with Nash and Zibanejad mostly. Fast is a hard worker but is miscast in this role.

Clendening has played the last couple. When Girardi comes back, it’s probably for him. But Holden has really struggled. Maybe he should watch a game. Not that I expect the coaching staff to do it.

Here are some of Derek Stepan’s thoughts on what they must bring tonight to the table against a hard working rival:

Stepan is the real leader in that room. He may not be having much puck luck scoring. How many more posts can he hit? But he speaks loudly and truthfully about the team. Maybe he’ll get one tonight.

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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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