The Islanders' chances of clawing back into the very broad playoff bubble are not salvageable without a near-miraculous run to counteract their awful November. But even setting ambitions considerably and appropriately lower, the Islanders can't hope to get out of the league basement anytime soon without picking up more than two points from this home-and-home with the Rangers.
The Isles have a league-low 22 games played (tied with Detroit, who has done just a tad better with their 22). In the next 3.5 days they'll push that total up to 25 and yet even a sweep of all three divisional games would only potentially leap over New Jersey (currently three points up with 18) and possibly Edmonton, Toronto or Florida (each five points up with 20). In other words, 14-game winless streaks dig season-crushing holes.
No Really, It's Just another Game, I Swear
It's been said a thousand times, but these derby games are different. It never matters what each team's rank in the standings is, these games take on a life of their own -- even when the rivalry is in a slump by its lofty standards. On the Islanders side, players are always admitting these games are "special." On the Rangers side, there is the constant pretense that it doesn't mean anything special at all, a claim repeated so often that one thinks they doth protest too much.
"The Islanders definitely enjoy playing the underdog card, so I think we have to have an arrogant attitude where we have a chip on our shoulder in these games..."
"Swagger" is a word I've seen uttered by players from both teams recently -- and it's one cited and sought by Garth Snow after Scott Gordon's firing. It's not a word I particularly like -- just play the game, I say -- but I can't deny the psychological side of this game and how it can influence player confidence and, consequently, performance. "Swagger" always sounds to me like you're talking yourself into believing something you maybe shouldn't, but at some point if a player believes in its effect on his own performance, then it matters.
And it's precisely that aspect that makes this rivalry a frequent "forget the standings" intense affair on the ice as well as in the stands: The presence of rival fans, the different buzz in the building, the knowledge in the heads of players on both teams that this matchup means more -- if for no other reason than fans' ever-present fear of razzing from colleagues/friends -- elevates the significance. How players respond to that, whether by coming out on fire, coming out with too much fire, or coming out too relaxed in an attempt to avoid coming out with too much fire, is why the script always elicits extra explanation, like this from Ryan Callahan:
"I don't think we matched their intensity right out of the gate in the last one there where they came really hard at us, and that's what we have to change," Ryan Callahan told The Post. "We want them to have to worry about us, not us worrying about them."
That sort of "we weren't intense"/"worrying about them" stuff shouldn't be a factor. But it's Isles-Rangers, so it is.
The Islanders have stated Rick DiPietro gets the start again and Andrew MacDonald is definitely in the lineup. Whether Jack Hillen was apparently up to coaches' decisions yesterday afternoon, but I don't expect them to re-introduce both into the lineup for this game. The other stakes in play are emergency call-up Dylan Reese as well as the facial fracture of Bruno Gervais -- who was planning to resume play with a cage, but prudence might dictate a delay there.
As nicely outlined by George Ays at Blueshirt Banter via painstakingly recorded scoring chance tabs, the Rangers have played better in front of Martin Biron than they have in front of Henrik Lundqvist.
The Banter also has a nice look at the once highly sought college free agent and local Matt Gilroy's inability to carve a regular spot with the Rangers. There was always that risk when bidding up and guaranteeing money for a late bloomer with leverage, but it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here. It's still only 26 games (team games, Gilroy's played 18) into year two of his pro career.
It's no secret where the Islanders' problems have been lately: Offense, or lack thereof -- particularly on the powerplay. Their 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio (0.52) remains abysmal, but it's actually rebounded from the depths seen during that 14-game winless streak. In contrast, the powerplay has not, as its drought stands at 0-for-31 and counting. Rectifying that has been a focus during this long break between games, with the injured Doug Weight even being called on for some advice.
MacDonald's return should make a difference overall, although I hesitate to expect too much in his first game back in over a month. Still, Jack Capuano (who coached A-Mac and used him in many roles in Bridgeport) shares Gordon's belief that MacDonald has a role on the powerplay:
He’s really going to help us out on the power play, you know, his distribution of the puck on the power play and his shot. The one thing about Andrew being out for as long as he has is that he has to make sure he simplifies his game his first game back and not over handle the puck.
Does that mean A-Mac gets significant PP time tonight? Well, rust or no rust, it can't be any worse than it's been recently without him.
So here we go. It's at the Coliseum tonight, followed by the Garden -- and the Puck Daddy viewing party, if you're near but not in the Garden tomorrow (like me) tomorrow night. Some good ol' rivalry fun. Lots of exclamation points.
It's been a while, but our usual game thread tomfoolery and First Islanders Goal pool resumes tonight.