So, in case you've forgotten.
January 13th- Islanders 3, Rangers 0
January 27th- Rangers 1, Islanders 4
Tonight is the second-to-last regular season game of 2014-15 between the Rangers and the Islanders, and thus far the Islanders have every right to believe that they are the better team. In the three games between the two bitter rivals the Rangers have been outscored 13-4 and have been stymied by the Islanders' forecheck and physicality. However, in the season series both clubs are almost identical in shots, hits, and in damage done on the man advantage (the Isles have one more power play goal in one more power play opportunity). So why is there such a disparity in the goals?
Jaroslav Halak is one reason. He's been the first star twice and the second star once in the first three games of the season series. Halak has a .964 SV% against the Rangers this season, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering he had a 27 save shutout and a 40 save night with a single goal in the January games. For years now the Islanders have had a huge weakness in net, but that is no longer the case. Halak, when he's on his game, is a very good goaltender that will almost always keep his team in a game and is capable of stealing a few. Without a doubt he has been the most dominant player in the season series and has been a huge part of the Islanders' recent domination of the Rangers.
Of course Halak's ridiculous play isn't the entire story. The Rangers have done a woeful job supporting their defense and their goaltender while playing against the Islanders. The three losses to the Islanders were all rife with costly turnovers and/or disastrous mistakes that led to Islanders goals, many of which were made in the Rangers' own zone, which is just how the Islanders beat most teams. There isn't a team that hustles more and works harder on the forecheck in the league. Thus far the Rangers have been completely hit-or-miss when it comes to working through the Islanders' system. Unfortunately when they miss it has often resulted in a turnover, leaving Hank stranded, or being unable to get off the ice and allowing the Islanders to rack up huge possession time in the offensive zone and sap the energy of the Rangers trapped out on the ice. They are an exceptionally good team at tilting the ice and getting big momentum-swinging shifts from any of their four lines.
The Islanders' goals in the series have come from all over their lineup. Obviously the Rangers have to do everything they can to limit the impact of superstar John Tavares short of pulling a Celtic Pride on him, but Tavares hasn't been beating the Rangers. The Islanders' depth and goaltending has. The Islanders have had goals from 11 different skaters in the season series thus far. The Rangers have had 2 goals from Rick Nash and a goal apiece from Carl Hagelin (a dignity power play goal in the dying minute of the game) and Derrick Brassard. Yikes. The shots have been there for the Rangers, but the offense has not been able to do the damage that we've seen it do over the past three games of the current road trip. Will we see a different story tonight now that almost everyone not named Martin St. Louis seems to be scoring for the Rangers?
There is a lot of talk about the Rangers lacking big bodies and size that teams "need" to beat teams built like the Islanders and the Boston Bruins. Apparently, there are those that think it is something the Rangers must address on or before deadline day. I can say with certainty that adding a bigger guy to the Rangers' lineup will not change anything if the Blueshirts continue to make the same mistakes they've made against the Islanders and if they continue to be shut down by the much-improved Isles' defense and goaltending. It's clear that the Islanders know how to slow the Rangers down and clog up the neutral zone to complicate their transition game and take their speed away from them. Now it is up to the Rangers to find a way to adapt to create their chances, get on the power play, and find a way to score on Jaroslav Halak. Is tonight the night they figure out? There is a huge four point swing in the Metropolitan Division riding on whether or not the Rangers can finally find a way to beat Capuano's Islanders.
Let's go Rangers.