Thursday, March 31, 2011

New York Islanders vs. New York Rangers: Isles Can Impact Rival's Playoff Hopes

*For a recap of last night's game between the Islanders and Devils, click here.

It took the New York Islanders 40 minutes to wake up last night in Newark.

Hopefully, that won't be the case this evening, when the Isles take on their in-state rivals, the New York Rangers, at Nassau Coliseum.

The Blue and Orange have just five contests remaining on the schedule, three of which are on Long Island.

Tonight's "Battle of New York" will be the last of the 2010-2011 season, and you better believe the Isles will be looking to make a statement in this one.

Despite defeating the Blueshirts back on October 11th at the Coliseum, the Islanders have dropped four in a row against Henrik Lundqvist and Co. The last time these two teams faced each other, back on March 15th at Madison Square Garden, the Isles didn't have their best game and, simultaneously, were dealing with controversial officiating

Putting all these factors aside, the Islanders know they can't make excuses. They've had to deal with a ton of adversity this year, and for a roster with an average age that's in the 20's, the Isles have responded better than most expected.

 Honestly, raise your hand if you thought they would be among the better teams in the NHL during the second half of the season.

Please, not all at once.

This franchise's unforeseeable turnaround has certainly sparked a sense of optimism in Islander Country, something that hasn't been felt here since the days of Michael Peca and Chris Osgood.

Recently however, the team has been singing slightly off-key, if you will. They are currently in the midst of a three-game losing stretch and are just 4-4-2 in their last 10.

The Islanders seem to have lost that jump we saw from them after the All-Star break, but that's not much of a long-term concern. It's simply part of the maturation process. There are going to be ups and downs, especially when you have a young team.

Across the East River, frustrations continue to mount.

Just when Ranger fans thought they could take comfort in the fact that their team was playing well and had all but clinched a postseason berth, the Blueshirts began to struggle and now find themselves clinging for dear life onto that eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With last night's 1-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, the ninth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes are now just three points behind the Rangers with five games remaining.

An Islander win tonight could further damage their geographical nemesis' playoff hopes.

More importantly, an Islander win tonight could generate much-needed momentum and a sense of team pride, positives for this young bunch to build on for the rest of this season and the next.

Isles head coach Jack Capuano has not yet announced his starting goaltender, but after Rick DiPietro's less-than-impressive performance against the Devils, one would think Al Montoya gets the nod for this matchup.

Whether or not Michael Grabner will be in the lineup tonight will depend on if/when his girlfriend gives birth today. Grabner missed last night's game in order to stay with her at the hospital.

X-Factor
The Rangers may not be playing their best hockey right now, but they are still a dangerous team. They're defensively sound and get excellent goaltending from Lundqvist, so the Isles will have their work cut out for them tonight.

How do you beat the Rangers? On the scoreboard, of course. The Blueshirts are not exactly "offense-savvy," so if you can pepper the opposition with shots on goal, you're bound to score goals. The Islanders offense needs to be pressing all night long. Wear down Lundqvist, and scoring opportunities will present themselves.

What the Isles absolutely cannot due, as I mentioned in my pregame for yesterday and still holds true for this one, is turn the puck over, make poor decisions in the offensive zone and wait until the third period to come alive. Hopefully, the Islanders will feed off the home crowd and storm out of the gate.

Players To Watch

John Tavares
Over the last six matchups, Tavares has managed just one point, scoring a goal during the Isles' 2-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers last week. He has eight points (2G, 6A) in 10 career games against the Rangers, and I think a return to the stats column is forthcoming. He'd love to make an impact tonight, and I say he will.

Zenon Konopka
The Islanders are going to have to win key faceoffs and keep Sean Avery in check, which are two of Konopka's specialties. He's going to have another unheralded performance tonight.

Travis Hamonic
With Andrew MacDonald out of the lineup, Travis Hamonic is arguably the best defenseman on the team at the moment. He's had a very impressive rookie season, playing well on both ends of the ice. The Isles need to play a strong defensive game if they are to win tonight, and it will be up to Hamonic to set the tone early on.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter: @dfriedman_isles.

Comments are welcome.

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