Rangers rookie J.T. Miller was allowed to run free twice, providing the difference in a frustrating 4-1 Islanders loss to their metro rivals, who now leap them in the standings of this young season that is now 20 percent complete.
The Islanders have now dropped eight straight at Madison Square Garden, but more importantly they've lost three in a row in this short season, to drop them to 4-5-1 and a tie or sole possession of last place in the Atlantic pending tonight's Flyers-Panthers match. [Update: Flyers lost in a shootout. So the Isles are tied in points with a game in hand.]
Things started off with a decent shift from John Tavares, creating a chance and forcing a faceoff in the Rangers zone. Next came the Frans Nielsen line and an unlikely four-pack of mistakes by Kyle Okposo, Mark Streit, Brian Strait and Evgeni Nabokov.
A netural zone of hot potato between the two sides got away from them when Okposo lost a battle along the boards, a bouncing puck hopped over Streit's stick at the blueline, Brian Strait was caught flat-footed and beaten by a streaking J.T. Miller coming off the bench, and Nabokov was caught wrong-footed as Miller kicked the puck from between his and Strait's skates up to his blade and released all in one motion.
It was a very nice first NHL goal for Miller. It was a regrettably played 1,420th NHL goal allowed by Nabokov and three of his teammates.
Things were hardly lopsided after that, but Frans Nielsen handed his stick to an Isles defenseman who'd lost his own, and the predictable de facto 5-on-4+statue situation resulted, with Marian Gaborik finishing from the high slot* through a teammate's legs, off the post to the left of Nabokov. Suddenly it's 2-0 for the Rangers headed into the first intermission, and an otherwise evenly played game looks lost before it's a third of the way through.
*As a general rule, Gaborik is not who you want to leave open in the high slot. Just FYI.
A New Hope
It wasn't, of course, because the Islanders have John Tavares. They halved that deficit and made the second period look like they had a chance to come back. Tavares led a rush, used his wingers to create space, and simply rifled a beautiful wrister through the defense and over Henrik Lundqvist's shoulder.
Then, with the Islanders on the penalty kill, all they needed was a Michael Grabner shorty ...
The Turning Point
... which almost happened. Pressed by two backcheckers including Rick Nash diving at his feet, Grabner went forehand but Lundqvist's pad got enough of it. Nash went sliding into the net to end the play. Faceoff.
Off the faceoff in the Rangers zone, Andrew MacDonald and Marty Reasoner were way too slow to realize Miller was again streaking through the neutral zone. For my money MacDonald stayed too far up for too long after the Rangers got possession. That allowed Ryan McDonagh to spot Miller and hit him with a beautiful stretch pass that split MacDonald and Travis Hamonic, with Reasoner none the wiser that MacDonald did not have him.
Just inexcusable that the Islanders, on the penalty kill, were not prepared for that.
McDonagh, who played a fantastic game, finished things off with an empty net goal after Strait made an inexcusably hopeful cross-ice pass right after the Islanders pulled Evgeni Nabokov. Final: 4-1.
- The Rangers were without Dan Girardi but didn't miss him much because Ryan McDonagh was still around (as was Marc Staal, of course). Bob Gainey gave the Rangers McDonagh for Scott Gomez. That's going to continue to anger me for the next 10 years, I reckon.
- Growing feeling or fear: I don't think the Isles bottom six is that bad. But I wonder if they have the approach or structure to make them dangerous from night to night, and the Isles are so reliant on their top lines. (Counterpoint: Most teams are.) New Jersey's bottom six is not good, arguably worse, yet they're able to make a difference in their limited minutes.
- To that end, MacDonald, Hamonic and Streit were all at 24 minutes or more again tonight. Hopefully Lubomir Visnovsky helps this situation, but they all -- except maybe Hamonic -- look like they're logging too much and making less effective plays as a result. (Yes, I realize this is a subjective judgment, and this might not be the game to make it.)
- Eric Boulton played almost nine minutes. Marty Reasoner over 12. Hmm.
- Still looking for Kyle Okposo.
- Powerplay was 0-for-5 with five shots. A few chances, a few big wasted shifts. Slumping.
- Brad Boyes made some nice dangerous passes once in the offensive zone, but I'm still not sold on him making that top line work due to their difficulty gaining the zone without Tavares doing it by himself.
- Lundqvist made some nice saves tonight to keep the Isles from ever tying it. Nabokov didn't really have any game-savers -- you'd like him to stop either the first or third goal -- and he had a few nail the post behind him too.
Ultimately, this game was frustrating because the Rangers got an early lead and did what the Rangers under John Tortorella do to keep it. Play was close, shots were close (28-25 for the Isles), and the performance wasn't nearly as bad as the fan frustration would make it feel.
Does the team need a better approach to give it a chance to win games when special teams or star efforts by Tavares or Grabner don't carry the day? Will Visnovsky's -- and Josh Bailey's -- entrance help balance things out? You hope.
That said: It's a three-game slump, with them having a chance in the third period of each loss, and these questions weren't as prevalent when they were winning. Overall, things have gotten better, but progress comes in fits and starts.
So goes hockey.