All these years, conventional wisdom said that when the Islanders and Rangers play the standings are meaningless. The rationale was that, no matter who was up or down, the rivalry’s intensity was a huge equalizer. That has mostly been true, except for Tuesday night, when the standings meant everything.
With the Rangers at the top and the Islanders at the bottom, the meeting before 15,795 at Barclays Center was all about context. The Rangers dearly wanted to reinforce their status and the Islanders desperately wanted to change situation. It was the Islanders who got what they needed, a 4-2 win that continued their points streak and extended their hope that the season might finally be rounding into shape.
John Tavares’ power-play goal at 11:13 of the third period gave the Islanders their third and pivotal two-goal lead as his team won for the fourth time in five games (with an overtime loss in the other one). They reached the NHL’s version of .500 at 10-10-5.
“It means we’ve got a long way to go,” Tavares said. “I think it started out west. We made a few adjustments and we started to see some consistency and a little bit of our identity starting to really come out. Generate some more offense and playing with a little more pace to our game. If you’re playing with pace that means you’re executing.”
The defeat did not terribly damage the Rangers season, of course, but it was not without cost. Rick Nash left in the second period with a lower-body injury and did not return. Matt Puempel was injured in the first, on a high-stick from Brock Nelson that resulted in a four-minute penalty, and also did not come back.
“We had some real good looks in the first period on our power play, you’ve got to score those timely goals,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “I thought we battled hard to come back, but without a doubt, their goalie was the best player on the ice tonight.”
Jaroslav Halak did make 36 saves, and was tough during the Rangers’ four-minute first-period power play — arguably the most important stretch of the game. “Obviously I got lucky a couple times in the crease, guys making saves for me,” Halak said. “It’s a team effort. We need more of these.”
At the end of that successful kill, Nelson burst out of the box and set up Jason Chimera’s goal that made it 2-0, following an earlier slap shot by defenseman Scott Mayfield, who began the day in Bridgeport and was called up as an emergency replacement because Johnny Boychuk fell to the flu bug going through the team.
There was a lot of ebb and flow, on the ice and in the stands. Jimmy Vesey made it 2-1 on a rebound of Nash’s shot 56 second into the second. Andrew Ladd scored 1:14 later for a 3-1 Islanders lead, Marc Staal’s one-timer made it 3-2 at 8:54 of that same period.
“When things don’t go our way, we’re handling them a little bit better,” Tavares said. “We’re starting to make things turn our way.”
Travis Hamonic, who joked about making a perfect goalie’s butterfly save on one of the penalty kills said he realized no one in the NHL has been feeling sorry for the Islanders during their struggles. “I don’t know who’s maybe lost a couple in the league right now but I tell you I’m not feeling sorry for them,” he said. “You’ve just got to move forward. Every single day. That’s what’s kind of going on here now.”