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Encouragement for Islanders, learning experience for Rangers

Kaapo Kaako of the New York Rangers reacts

Kaapo Kaako of the New York Rangers reacts to a third period goal by Matt Martin  of the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden on February 8, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

For a couple of days there, the local hockey world seemed to be confronted with a timeline-altering, trajectory-reconfiguring, orbit-redirecting plot twist of cosmic proportions.

Then the Islanders and Rangers took the ice at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, and order abruptly was restored.

The Islanders’ thorough 4-0 victory ended their 0-2-1 slide, ended the Rangers’ 3-0 surge and likely ended the Blueshirts’ realistic hopes for a playoff berth.

For the Islanders, the manner of victory was as encouraging as the victory itself, because after routing the Rangers, 6-1, last week, they had found goals difficult to come by in three winless games against the Capitals.

Then they scored three goals in the game’s first 21:03 and were on their way back to jockeying with the Capitals, Penguins and Bruins for East Division playoff seeding.

"The locker room’s buzzing right now; that’s a really big win for us," Oliver Wahlstrom said. "Just to see everyone smile again and put on the tunes was awesome . . . The win was just special for this room and everyone involved."

The night began with each coach making a critical strategic decision.

For the Rangers’ David Quinn, it was starting his No. 1 goalie, Igor Shesterkin, over his goalie with a far better history against the Islanders in Alexandar Georgiev.

Soon, Islanders coach Barry Trotz’s big lineup move was paying off, and Quinn’s was not.

 

After trying Travis Zajac and Josh Bailey with top-liners Mathew Barzal and Eberle in the last two losses to the Capitals, Trotz went back to Leo Komarov.

When that news hit Twitter during pregame warmups, many fans were ready to fire Trotz on the spot.

Sure enough, at 6:27 Komarov took a pass from Eberle and scored high to Shesterkin’s stick side from the right circle. It was the first goal of the season for "Uncle Leo."

"It feels good to score," he said later, adding he has had not read or heard anything fans and journalists have said about him, which is just as well.

Then another guy whose role has been fluid came through for Trotz. With Pavel Buchnevich off for tripping, Wahlstrom scored on a long shot from the slot that eluded Shesterkin at 12:39.

At 1:03 of the second period, Anthony Beauvillier beat Shesterkin from the slot to make it 3-0.

Even with the Rangers loss, there is a broader view one could take of the big game between old rivals. Both franchises are in position for a rosy near future filled with other interesting hockey nights to come.

For the Islanders, that means a state-of-the-art new facility now in the final stages of construction before opening next season, perhaps in November, and taking a good team there with them.

The Rangers, who make their (presumably) last visit to the Coliseum on Saturday, are another intriguing story.

For the second season in a row, they rallied down the stretch. The experience has been invaluable for a young roster.

Quinn called it "very meaningful. We have a lot of young players who are learning how to play playoff-type hockey games . . . So we’re going to continue to learn, but we don’t want to learn and lose; we want to win."

The learning continued Thursday night, but not the winning. It was another reminder that while the Rangers are coming, the Islanders are here. They are built to win now, and in a big spot at the Garden, they looked like it again.

"There was a lot to like about that," Trotz said. "We were hard to play against. It was probably frustrating for them . . . This is a proud group. They knew what was on the line, and they played that way."

New York Sports