After the New York Rangers squeaked out the first goal in a game where they'd mostly held the edge for the first 25 minutes, the New York Islanders mounted their first sustained series of offensive chances to carry across multiple lines (and one powerplay).
But Henrik Lundqvist, as he so often does, shut the door -- most notably on Frans Nielsen on that powerplay -- and the Rangers were free to kill the game with sustained forecheck and a timely insurance goal.
Carl Hagelin scored both the opener and the insurance goal, though Michael Del Zotto should be credited with creating both. To finish it off, Marian Gaborik picked up the empty net goal -- though this time the Islanders did mount nominal pressure with the extra attacker after pulling Evgeni Nabokov with roughly three minutes left.
The Rangers now hold a 3-1 lead in the season series. They also now hold first place in the Eastern Conference with 48 points after 34 games.
* Nino Niederreiter played a season-high 14:20 -- about three to five minutes more than his norm -- and much closer to what he saw in his nine-game trial in 2010-11. Struggling for secondary scoring (and any scoring, on this night), I thought he did a little better with the extra minutes. It's a balance for a young player like him to both learn the pro defensive game and tap into his creative side, and there were signs of both on this otherwise unremarkable night as Niederreiter skated and occasionally created some interesting looks with Josh Bailey.
* Micheal Haley fought and drew the instigator (Yeah, sure. Even the Rangers announcers were surprised.) for his first-period fight with Stu Bickel. Haley gives up about six inches on Bickel, but one thing Haley doesn't do is sucker-jump an opponent while said opponent is removing his helmet for the fight, as Bickel did to Tim Wallace in the last meeting.
Bickel was more than willing to fight after Haley threw the big hit in the corner, so the instigator was debatable, but it's clear why Haley was arriving two minutes into the game, and it had everything to do with Bickel's weasel move on the other side of the Christmas break. Arbitrary NHL policing state for the win.
* The Rangers were credited with 19 shot blocks (the Islanders: 10). Let there be no doubt, the Rangers know how to close down the game once they get a lead. The Isles top line with John Tavares generated its share of chances or at least semi-chances based on nice plays and pressure, but the Rangers play a percentages game to protect the lead, and Lundqvist provides the spine.
* Nabokov made 28 saves on 30 shots (the 31st shot was into the empty net). He gave them the Isles a chance to win, but Lundqvist did not.
From the Islanders' post-game twitter feed:
Capuano says that they aren't losing games because of systems, but because not everyone is doing what is needed to win.
"Some guys are giving us what they have ... other guys are passengers. ... We're making dumb decisions with the puck, 11 turnovers in the first period. ... We gotta re-evaluate our, uh, situation, and play the guys who are competing at the highest level we ask them to compete at."
Cappy was also happy with Nabokov's play:
* * *
That's about it. The Islanders have lost six of their last eight games in regulation, and the only two outliers were shootout losses. In that span, they've managed 16 goals in the eight games, which is scarily close to their first quarter average of just two goals per game. At 2.21 per game, the only team who's scored less this season is the Los Angeles Kings.
On the Farm: Bridgeport and Kevin Poulin withstood a 32-21 shot margin to hold on for the 3-2 win over the Whale, avenging the result of the parent clubs. I doubt that's much consolation.
In the Nursery: In WJC news, Ryan Strome logged a goal and three assists in Canada's 8-1 rout of Finland in the opening day of the WJC. Johan Sundstrom also appeared on the scoresheet in Sweden's 9-4 thump of Latvia.