Struggling Rangers try to slow down wildcard chasing rival Islanders in home and home

The tale of two classic New York rivals is at the midpoint of a weird season. One where scoring is way up and the amount of parity is not good like Gary Bettman portrays. There just aren’t many good teams. Aside from the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Capitals and Penguins, no one has stepped up in a mediocre East. The West isn’t much better.

A lot has changed for both the Rangers and Islanders since their last meeting prior to Thanksgiving. A convincing 5-0 home shutout on Nov. 21 sent the Blueshirts into the break a playoff team on a 9-1-1 stretch. It’s crazy to think that they had more points than the Pens at the time. Since then, they’re 5-10-5 with only 15 of a possible 40 points. They enter tonight’s hone match on a four-game losing streak, having been outscored 22-5. Three of the losses were uncompetitive. Only the recent 4-2 defeat in Vegas was hard fought with the team showing improvement.

The Islanders have played much better hockey over the last month. They just had a six-game win streak snapped in hard fashion to Carolina, 4-3 at Nassau Coliseum. They’ve won nine of their last 11 entering play tonight. During that stretch, they’ve scored three or more goals in 10 games. At 23-14-4 with 50 points, they’re fourth in the Metro Division and trail both third place Columbus and final wildcard Montreal by a point. They have three games at hand on the Canadiens and two on the slumping Sabres.

The next two games are a home and home series between the bitter rivals. Tonight’s game at MSG is set for 7 PM while Saturday’s rematch at Barclays Center is a rare 1 PM matinee on Saturday in Brooklyn. Sadly, these two games will conclude the season series. The teams split the first two back in November. The Isles took the first game at home 7-5 on 11/15. Then the Rangers returned the favor by winning handily at home 5-0 on 11/21.

For the Blueshirts, Kevin Hayes will miss his fourth consecutive game with a lower body injury sustained in a 7-2 home loss to Pittsburgh. Coach David Quinn has used rookie Filip Chytil at center the last three games. He hinted that Ryan Strome could shift to center later, moving Chytil on the wing. There is one lineup change on defense with Fredrik Claesson replacing Tony DeAngelo after he took 14 penalty minutes in the 4-2 loss to the Golden Knights.

DeAngelo remains an enigma. He’s often been the odd man out due to inconsistency. He possesses talent, but is caught in a numbers game due to Adam McQuaid returning to pair with Brady Skjei. Kevin Shattenkirk has been back for a week. He’ll reteam with Claesson, who Quinn is more comfortable with as a lefty stay at home D on the third pair. Marc Staal and Neal Pionk remain intact despite their play slipping. I’d like to see DeAngelo play regularly. But the team is also showcasing the more experienced players due to next month’s deadline. If DeAngelo wants to get back in Quinn’s good graces, he has to earn it. I like his skating and puck skills. His defense like most leaves a lot to be desired. He plays with edge, but can’t try to pick fights and seek retribution like he did the other night against Max Pacioretty.

Mats Zuccarello played one of his most effective games, picking up a primary assist on Mika Zibanejad’s 12th goal. Astonishingly, he ranks second behind goalscoring leader Chris Kreider (20). This is a roster that doesn’t score enough. Only Hayes (10) and Jimmy Vesey (10) are the other two Rangers to have double digits. In answering a question regarding why his team doesn’t shoot more, Quinn was very candid. He acknowledged that quite a few players are passers. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out who he means.

In 12 games since returning to the lineup due to a broken thumb, Pavel Buchnevich has two goals on 12 shots. He’s been held without a shot in five games. More troubling is over the same stretch, the playmaking right wing has only one assist. His only point in the past 10 games is a goal scored on Jan. 2 in a 7-2 loss to Pittsburgh. In that game, he went to the net for his seventh goal and registered four shots in 15:58. He hasn’t been the same player since the injury. Only he knows if he’s 100 percent. Due to that inconsistent play, he found himself on the fourth line and off the power play. I think it’s tough to punish him when our team lacks enough skilled players. But if his play doesn’t warrant it, then he’ll continue to be in the doghouse.

Alexandar Georgiev got the last two starts. He made 27 saves in a fine performance on Tuesday. Henrik Lundqvist will get the nod tonight. We’ll see if he can put an end to the Isles’ mastery over him. Don’t forget it was Georgiev who shut them out in the last meeting. It’ll be Robin Lehner for the Isles. He’s established himself lately over Thomas Greiss. Lehner brings a career high seven-game winning streak into play.

Mathew Barzal had been hot during the Isles’ good stretch. Urged by tough minded coach Barry Trotz to shoot more, the ’17-18 Calder winner recorded his first career hat trick in a statement 4-0 win over John Tavares and the Leafs in Toronto on Dec. 29, 2018. Prior to going without a point over the last two, Barzal posted eight goals and three assists over the previous six games. Since 12/8, he’s 9-8-17 over the past 14 games.

The Islanders have gotten a nice contribution from rookie defenseman Devon Toews. In seven games since being recalled from Bridgeport, he has two goals and an assist with an impressive plus-seven rating while averaging 17:40. He had a good training camp before an injury sidelined him. Look for the younger Toews to become a fixture on the Islander blueline.

Josh Ho-Sang was sent back down to Bridgeport. As usual, keep an eye on Casey Cizikas. He centers the effective fourth line in name only with party crashers Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Brock Nelson is on a hot streak with six points (3-3-6) in his last five games. He’s 5-5-10 over 10. Rangers killer Anthony Beauvillier has no goals and three assists in his last eight. None of that matters when he plays the Rangers. His only career hat trick came against them on 11/15 when he went 3-1-4 to highlight the Islanders 7-5 home win.

More importantly, today marks the two-year anniversary of former NYPD detective Steven McDonald’s death. The Rangers will pay tribute to him. I’d imagine his family will be there for the big game. If they have an ounce of pride, they’ll win tonight.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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