As if this rivalry already wasn't heated enough, Friday's contest between the Rangers (16-17-2, 34 pts) and the Islanders (9-19-7, 25 pts) pits a pair of teams desperate for a victory and two points, and who would like nothing better than extending the misery of their arch-rival from New York. The Rangers will enter play with just one win through the first six games (1-3-2) of their franchise-record nine-game homestand, while the Islanders reside in the basement of the Metropolitan Division having won just once overall since November 19th, a span of 14 games (1-9-4).
The Blueshirts have earned three of a possible four points their last two games, twice rallying in the third period to force overtime. Last Sunday they followed up Chris Kreider's game-tying goal late in the final period of play with a 4-3 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames, while on Wednesday they lost 4-3 to the Penguins in the shootout after scoring twice in the final eight minutes to force overtime and gain a valubale point in the standings. In fact in the three games the Rangers have earned at least one standing's point on this homestand---with a win, an overtime defeat, and a shootout loss---the Rangers have been forced to rally from a third period deficit.
In each of their previous five games the Rangers have surrendered the game's first goal--where they now have a 2-15-1 record this season---and in four of those five games they have given up multiple goals before scoring one of their own. That's why a strong start against a struggling opponent is deemed quite necessary on Friday night. While the Islanders have been no sure bet to succeed and win even when they score first or hold a late lead--witness their most recent contest in blowing a 2-0 lead in the final minutes of a 3-2 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday---the Rangers believe they can take the life out of a team that has won just once in the past month if they can score first at home, and possibly even put together more than a one-goal lead.
Mats Zuccarello and John Moore are coming off multi-point outings Wednesday night, and Zuccarello has multiple-point efforts now in three of his last seven games. Since November 23rd Zuccarello has 13 points (5-8-13) in 13 games. He also leads the Blueshirts with 12 points in 11 games against Metropolitan Division opponents after his goal and assist Wednesday against the Penguins.
Carl Hagelin has come alive offensively with two goals in his last two games, while Benoit Pouliot is contributing from the bottom six with assists in each of his last two games, along with the game-winner in the shootout against Calgary. However on the other side Rick Nash has just one goal in his last six games, Brad Richards has no goals in five straight, and Derek Stepan has one in his last 12 contests. Derick Brassard's clutch game-tying goal in the final two minutes Wednesday was his first goal in nine games.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvis has likewise been trying to find his game, having allowed three goals or more in each of his last six starts. Lundqvist did not practice Thursday after being run into hard by Pittsburgh's Chris Kunitz early in overtime on Wednesday, though head coach Alain Vigneault expects him to be healthy enough to make his season-high eighth straight start in goal.
Before the roster freeze went into effect the Rangers recalled J.T. Miller from the Hartford Wolf Pack on Thursday and sent rookie defenseman Dylan McIlrath and veteran forward Arron Asham back down to the minors. Miller likely will play Friday since Vigneault has spoken of veteran Taylor Pyatt in the past couple of days as on the outside looking in at a spot in the lineup what with the Rangers carrying 13 forwards on the roster.
The Islanders come into play having earned points in two straight games, and three of their last four, posting a 1-1-2 record along the way. For the Islanders, these are important baby steps considering how miserable the last month has been for them. Even though there have been some positives recently, blowing a late two-goal lead on home ice against Tampa Bay Tuesday was extremely painful, especially with Valteri Filpulla scoring off a scramble mere seconds before the final buzzer to force overtime.
John Tavares, a Hart Trophy finalist a year ago, continues to play at an elite level for the Isles. He currently is the NHL's fifth leading scorer with 38 points in 35 games. Linemate Kyle Okposo is also off to a strong start with 30 points so far on the season; and Frans Nielsen has emerged as a nice secondary threat with 11 goals and 26 points to date. However the rest of the team's offensive play has been extremely inconsistent, and its overall defensive play has been far from impressive.
Veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov at least is back healthy again after missing 12 games due to a groin strain. Nabokov has started each of the last two games and allowed only three goals, though losing both--one in overtime and the other in a shootout. Though his goals against average is a bloated 3.04 and he has won only five of 16 starts this season, Nabokov is a major upgrade over Kevin Poulin and Ander Nilsson who filled in while he was out injured, and his presence gives the Isles much more confidence than when he is not between the pipes.