After beginning 2014 on a 10-3 stretch that briefly revived their season, the New York Islanders approached the second half of January with a slate of games against tougher opponents who could quickly stamp out that revival.
Stamp they did, with five consecutive losses to Pittsburgh, St. Louis (albeit in shootout, after the league reversed an Isles OT win), Boston and finally an outdoor-indoor sweep by the Rangers this week. Now two games remain before the Olympic break and its de facto trade deadline (the post-Olympic and real trade deadline is March 5), and the Isles are seven points behind the nearest team in the Metro.
Friday's 4-1 loss at Madison Square Garden was a tough result -- the Islanders absolutely peppered Henrik Lundqvist, who stood on his head to keep the game tied 1-1 through two periods -- but there is no solace in tough breaks and moral victories when you spent the first half of the season burning through all your mulligans.
These teams promised offense, they delivered offense. But also goalies. The first period shots on goal were 14-12 for the Rangers, with only a Brian Boyle deflection in the opening minutes getting past Evgeni Nabokov.
Down 1-0 at the first intermission, the Isles doubled down on their efforts with 19 shots on Henrik Lundqvist (to just six on Nabokov). Kyle Okposo finally beat Lundqvist on a rebound shortly after a power play expired at 14:28, but it stung to reached the second intermission with only one goal to show for it.
In the third, the Rangers pushed back, got two goals just minutes apart with under 10 minutes left, and that was that. Ryan McDonagh collected an empty netter with one second left to ice your 4-1 final score.
Talking about the Goaltending
Shots overall were 39-37 for the Isles. But just when they were getting some big saves from their own keeper, their usually high-octane offense ran into a wall at the other end.
"That's as big as I've seen [Lundqvist] come up for us this year," Vigneault said. "He made some unreal saves, permitted us to bring it to the third. Then we played a real solid third period."
"It was frustrating in the second period when Lundqvist made some big saves," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "Even in the first period he made a couple of big ones that were the difference. He is a great goaltender, but our goalie made some big saves as well."
In Newsday, the state of things in a nutshell:
"Every loss . . . it's so magnified for us right now with the wins we need, the points we need," said Tavares, who was held without a point for the third straight game, his longest drought of the season.
Okposo's goal was his 24th of the season, tying a career high. Even on the rare nights Tavares hasn't produced, Okposo has put up points like a first-line winger in season that increasingly feels like it has gone to waste.
That Time-of-Year Drama
The Rangers won with drama swirling around their captain Ryan Callahan, the subject of increasing trade rumors as contract negotiations stagger. The latest from ESPN has the Rangers allowing other teams to speak with Callahan's agent, Steve Bartlett.
Bartlett is also the agent for Islanders winger Thomas Vanek, who faces his own big decision soon.