The last time the Rangers faced the Islanders, it was electric at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island. The Islanders had rallied to force overtime in a huge match. The building was loud and full of fans from both sides of a great rivalry. How I wish that were true for tonight’s season opener at MSG tonight. Ditto for the rematch at the Coliseum in two days.
Before we get to the current situation, let’s remember that final meeting from last season. On Feb. 25, the Rangers visited the Islanders knowing they needed two points. They were behind in the standings. After winning three straight, they came in hot while the Islanders were slumping. It made for a compelling match.
The game saw the crosstown rivals go back and forth. Early on, it was the Rangers who jumped out in front. On goals from Mika Zibanejad and Greg McKegg, they led by a pair. But a late second period tally from Rangers killer Jean-Gabriel Pageau made it interesting. Pageau remains a gritty player who scores clutch goals like he had to help his former team Ottawa eliminate the Rangers in that last postseason with Henrik Lundqvist in 2017. That feels like a lifetime ago.
A Brett Howden goal with over 11 minutes left should’ve been enough to put the Islanders away in the third period. But not the scrappy Barry Trotz coached Islanders. They kept coming at Alex Georgiev, who was in goal again due to his record versus the top rival. He was very good turning aside 42 of 45 shots.
However, the pesky Isles scored twice in the final 6:37 to force overtime. A Jordan Eberle power play goal and a Brock Nelson goal with 18 seconds to go tied the game up. The Islanders had the momentum. None of that mattered in a frantic three-on-three extra session that lasted just 28 seconds.
On a steal from Artemi Panarin, the Bread Man went to work. He stuck with a puck as three Islanders chased him down and sent a perfect back pass to a blind spot for Zibanejad, who did the rest. He scored a thrilling overtime goal to beat Semyon Varlamov and send the Blueshirts to a huge 4-3 win. They won once more at Montreal for a season best five-game win streak. They won nine of 10 to get back in the wild card race.
That team didn’t play well afterwards losing three in a row and five of seven before the NHL pause. Yet found themselves a couple of points out due to the Islanders reeling with the Panthers also in contention. Despite only winning twice in their final 10 games including the forgettable sweep at the hands of Carolina in the Qualifying Round, one of those victories was highlighted by a memorable performance from Zibanejad.
On Mar. 5, he became the third Ranger to score five goals in a game by doing so in dramatic fashion. Following Alex Ovechkin completing the hat trick to force OT, Zibanejad won the crazy game 6-5 on a breakaway going backhand top shelf at a loud Garden. An exciting moment.
At the time when the regular season was stopped, Zibanejad was on fire with a career high 41 goals. In 57 games, he was 41-34-75. Remarkable numbers for the first line center. That included a team best 15 on the power play and 23 at even strength. Three came shorthanded. He had six game-winners. He was a force with Panarin playing on the top power play while dominating at five-on-five with KZB line mates Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich.
After having COVID-19 which kept him in quarantine until he was cleared to return to practice, Zibanejad is good to go for tonight. That’s great news for the Rangers, who want to get off to a good start versus a good opponent fresh off its first Conference Finals appearance since ’93.
Tonight marks the debuts of Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller. There is plenty of excitement surrounding the team. We will finally get to see Lafreniere in his new number 13 Blueshirt jersey show what he can do against a tough defensive minded opponent. He’ll get introduced to a unique rivalry. Ditto for Miller, who’ll start with Jacob Trouba on the number one pair. There will be nerves.
At least for later, it’ll be Igor Shestyorkin finally facing the Islanders in net. He’ll oppose Varlamov, who is the Isles’ starter for now with highly touted Russian Ilya Sorokin the backup. Interestingly, he and Shestyorkin are best friends off the ice. On it, they’re competitors. Whenever they face off against each other, it’ll be storybook. All of Russia will be watching. Could it happen Saturday? Who knows.
A heated rivalry still features some mainstays including Kreider, Zibanejad, Buchnevich and former Islander Ryan Strome. The Isles boast more seasoned vets in Nelson, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Mat Barzal, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, Nick Leddy and ex-Devil Andy Greene. Their experience could be a difference.
It’s still about putting on that jersey and once you do, you’re in the battle. Panarin knows that. So do Ryan Lindgren, Adam Fox, Trouba, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Lemieux, Howden, Brendan Smith and Strome. Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil are still learning. Lafreniere and Miller will be baptized into the rivalry once the puck drops. It’s probably good that they’ll work double-duty versus the Islanders to start their NHL careers. It’ll help prepare them for the grind.
The excitement will begin around 7:10 PM EST. Maybe a few minutes later depending on what the Rangers do with player introductions and fan oriented stuff for all the people who won’t be there physically, but will be in body, mind and spirit.