For the second straight game, third in the past 11 days, and final time this season the Rangers (29-23-3, 61 pts) face off with the Islanders (21-27-8, 50 pts) on Friday night. Unlike Wednesday night's 2-1 Rangers win outdoors in Yankee Stadium, this final chapter in the Ranger-Islander 2013-14 regular season will be played in more familiar surroundings--at Madison Square Garden--and under a much more common routine for both teams.
Despite the return to "normalcy", fans from both teams are still abuzz from their Stadium Series experiences this past week. For the Rangers, that included last Saturday's practice and family skate at Yankee Stadium followed by Sunday afternoon's wild 7-3 victory over the Devils and Wednesday's more conservative 2-1 win over the Islanders, while for their rivals from Long Island the highlights were a similar practice and family skate outside on Tuesday and the organization's first-ever outdoor game the following evening.
Not to be lost in all of the excitement of the Stadium Series is that the Rangers came away with four extremely important points in games against division rivals. With 61 points the Rangers reside in second place in the tight Metropolitan Division as they seek a third straight win on Friday night. The Blueshirts are also an impressive 13-5-1 in their previous 19 contests dating to late December. In that span the Rangers have held the opposition to two goals or fewer 13 times, while scoring three or more themselves on 11 different occasions.
On Thursday Alain Vigneault pointed to the balance of the four forward lines and three defense parings as a major reason for the Rangers success the past month. That balance was evident in the two outdoor games as eight different Rangers scored goals--with each line scoring at least once, and three of the lines scoring at least twice. Even the fourth line played a big-time role as Daniel Carcillo scored the game-winner against the Islanders, Dominic Moore contributed a goal and two assists over the two games, and Brian Boyle notched an assist in each of the two Yankee Stadium contests.
Two of the team's top offensive contributors this season--Brad Richards and Chris Kreider--were the only forwards not to record at least one point in the two Stadium Series games. Rick Nash, who has 11 goals in his previous 11 games, was held off the scoresheet on Wednesday night despite leading the Rangers with five shots on goal. Nash saw his five-game goal-scoring streak end, as well.
Henrik Lundqvist backstopped both outdoor wins and is now 3-0-0 lifetime in such games. He stopped 30 of 31 shots and earned First Star honors against the Islanders, picking up his 19th win of the season. He has allowed only seven goals in his last five starts and has been the team's backbone once again following a roller-coaster start to the season.
The Rangers expect an even more desperate Islanders team to invade The Garden on Friday. The Islanders have now lost four in a row (0-3-1), an certainly had to be frustrated losing to their arch rivals on the big stage of Yankee Stadium two nights ago, especially after scoring the game's first goal late in the second period to take an important 1-0 lead. The Islanders have played the most games--56--of any team in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference, yet reside in last place in the division and third to last overall in the conference. Quite simply the Islanders need to start making a run, something their head coach Jack Capuano was quite forthright about when speaking with the media earlier in the week.
Veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov returned from a lower body injury Wednesday and really solidified things between the pipes for the Islanders, who had allowed 27 goals in the previous six games before Nabokov's strong play against the Rangers in which he stopped 32 of 34 shots. If the Islanders are to make any run at all, Nabokov is a central figure. He has been placed on IR twice already this season, and the Islanders have the worst goals against average in the Eastern Conference, and second worst in the entire NHL.
After being blanked as a line by the Rangers on Wednesday night, the Islanders superb threesome of John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Thomas Vanek will be looking to wreak havoc at The Garden once again on Friday. Tavares remains the second leading scorer in the NHL with 64 points, while Okposo--11 goals and 23 points in his last 16 games--sits sixth with 57.