When the lights go dim at 7 o’clock later tonight at MSG, it’ll be the prelude to another Battle of New York at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue. Indeed, the Islanders and Rangers will do battle for the second time in six days. The Islanders took the first meeting 7-5 in Brooklyn last Thursday. It was their ninth consecutive win in the historic series.
The ugly display resulted in first-year man David Quinn healthy scratching Brady Skjei for the next two games against the Panthers and Stars. The Blueshirts responded by winning both games as part of a three-game homestand that concludes Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. Skjei will return to the lineup. The question is will it be for Tony DeAngelo, or Brendan Smith, who scored in his return and set up Filip Chytil’s game-winner on Monday night.
That’ll be up to the coach. What I do know is he has a way of pushing the right buttons. How else to explain the rebuilding Rangers, who enter play in second place in the Metro Division with an 11-8-2 record, for 24 points? When he benches players, they usually respond well to the challenge. In Skjei’s case, he’s underperforming as the team’s defunct number one defenseman. Could the 24-year old be feeling the weight of expectations in his third year? On a new long-term deal that pays him a cap average of $5.25 million per season, he can play better. With a goal and six assists in over 21 minutes per night, Skjei must find more consistency. He can’t afford a repeat of the nightmare at Barclays Center.
Which leads me to DeAngelo. What is he? The former Tampa Bay first round pick out of Sewell, New Jersey is a team best plus-six with seven points (2-5-7) in 13 games. However, he remains unpredictable despite his talent. Still only 23, this is make or break for DeAngelo. He was paired with Skjei in last week’s defenseless implosion against the Rangers’ kryptonite. What will Quinn decide? Does he go with raw talent or more grit and determination? That’s the choice between DeAngelo and Smith, who was a bit shaky in the 2-1 win over Dallas.
The Isles always play with more edge and purpose, treating these rivalry games as if they’re a Stanley Cup. Maybe that’s what Quinn is thinking by naming backup goalie Alexandar Georgiev Wednesday’s starter over Henrik Lundqvist. In truth, the King did nothing wrong last Thursday in giving up five goals on 17 shots before Georgiev relieved him in the third period. Four of the Isles’ five goals came on wide open redirections. The other from the latest Islander hero Anthony Beauvillier was on a breakaway. Beauvillier, who entered that match with one point (goal) notched his first career hat trick and four-point game. He also tallied in a ugly 6-2 home loss to the Stars.
Leave it to the Rangers to get an Islander on track. Considering how well he played, expect to see Thomas Greiss in net again. It was his clutch saves under siege that allowed the Isles to take the first of four meetings.
Maybe by going with Georgiev, Quinn is sending a message to his team. Anything but their best effort won’t be good enough to earn a win over the Islanders. If they play as uneven and sloppy as they did in a oddly played one-goal win over Dallas, it won’t be good enough. The Isles should be well rested and motivated after task master Barry Trotz ripped into them on Sunday.
You know pesky captain Anders Lee will come to play along with Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Beauvillier. Cal Clutterbuck is always a pain in the butt, along with Leo Komarov. Trotz is looking for more consistency from struggling center Mathew Barzal. Despite a pile of assists (16), he’s a minus-11 and took a ill advised minor penalty last week that got him benched.
It always seems that one Islanders defenseman steps up in these games. Last week, it was offensive dynamo Johnny Boychuk and underperforming Nick Leddy. The likely candidates could come from Thomas Hickey, Scott Mayfield or Ryan Pulock.
If the Rangers are to prevail and finally end the misery, they’ll need key performances from Skjei, Mika Zibanejad (quiet lately), Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Kevin Shattenkirk, Neal Pionk and Marc Staal in support of Georgiev. It will take a total team effort to come out with a win.
That is the objective. To give a happy bunch of surprised Blueshirts fans an early Thanksgiving present.