The rival New York Islanders and Rangers clashed in a rare season-opening meeting at Madison Square Garden, and the hosts successfully cast last year’s season sweep away with a 5-3 defeat of the Isles.
The game had the look and feel not of a grudge match between two rivals looking to make a statement, but rather two teams who still aren’t sure who they are. Play was choppy and both Jaroslav Halak and Henrik Lundqvist were tested often via breakdowns rather than brilliant offensive execution.
The Rangers had the better of even strength play, though the teams took turns with control of the game’s flow and neither looked like they just spent three weeks of training for this.
Neither team could convert on their first three power plays through 40 minutes, but the Rangers entered the third period with a 2-0 lead in their home opener. But the final 20 minutes had most of the story.
Still, before the third, the first 40 minutes:
In his first game on the other side of this rivalry, Michael Grabner opened scoring with a rebound tap-in to finish a 4-on-2. Nick Leddy had left Grabner free as he drifted too far to the left wing side, leaving Travis Hamonic to fend the other three. Truth be told, Leddy probably had time to get back and cover Grabner even after stepping too far wide.
Mats Zuccarello doubled the Rangers’ lead late in the second period with a bit of luck, as his shoveled backhand from the right side of the slot deflected off Ryan Strome’s skate through Halak’s legs.
Leddy made up for his lethargy on the first goal when he scored the Islanders’ first of the season just 47 seconds into the third period. The Isles pressed from the start, with Hamonic carrying the puck in support of the fourth line. Casey Cizikas took Hamonic’s drop and found Leddy waltzing through the slot, where he pinged his shot through traffic and in off the post.
However, just as the Islanders were getting back in the game, John Tavares was ailing on the bench and giving us all a heart attack. J.T. Miller had slashed him on the finger in the corner on the previous shift, and Tavares was doubled over in pain on the bench. He received some magic spray for the finger and kept taking shifts, but things looked ominous.
No matter. The Isles used their Cizikas hook-and-ladder play again on another rush to tie the game at 4:04 of the third. This time Cizikas gained the line and found Nikolai Kulemin streaking into the zone. Cal Clutterbuck tipped Kulemin’s shot past Lundqvist.
Alas, that equalizer stood for just six minutes. At the halfway mark of the third the Rangers counterattacked yet again with a long pass to evade the Isles forecheck, and this time it paid off.
Chris Kreider made a great play to catch the airborne pass at the Isles blueline and also tame a bouncing puck all the way through his deke around Halak. The Isles goalie got a toe on the shot, but the bounce carried upward and in.
Tavares took the rarest of penalties — an offensive zone holding call — with just over four minutes left, and the Isles paid the price. The Rangers worked the puck well for the only power play goal of the game, Brandon Pirri finishing from the slot after a heads-up back pass from Kreider.
With Halak pulled for a sixth attacker, Miller scored into an empty net to remove all doubt.
Brock Nelson got one back with 95 seconds remaining to make things look good, but Tavares took another offensive zone penalty to make sure things finished with a two-goal margin of defeat.
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Unlike Rangers fans’ apologies for Kreider, Shane Prince “knows his own speed and strength.”
Speaking here of the scramble that preceded Brady Skjei sending the puck over the glass for a penalty: It was a subtle but commendable play when Prince sprinted in for the 50/50 puck with Lundqvist out of his crease but took care to avoid colliding with the goalie who was out in the faceoff circle.
It was Anthony Beauvillier’s first NHL game (10:41, 1 shot, 4 hits, an early penalty), Andrew Ladd, Jason Chimera and Dennis Seidenberg’s first game (16:03, 1:30 on the PK) with the Islanders, Kulemin’s first game on a new-look fourth line, and Halak’s first game back as the healthy and ordained #1.
Beauvillier was scrappy but feeling his way, Ladd and Chimera certainly looked like two wingers getting to play with Tavares, and Halak was solid — stopped multiple solo breaks — and moving well. Tavares created some chances early, and Chimera had good chops around the net, but they weren’t the Isles’ best line.
That title goes to the fourth, where Kulemin showed his best self for a trio that looked annoying, energetic and dangerous with him in Matt Martin’s old spot.
It was also Brendan Burke’s first official call as play-by-play announcer for the Islanders broadcasts on MSG+. If you missed his lone preseason appearance, tonight was a good taste of what’s to come. Steady voice and smooth chemistry with Butch Goring.
What We Learned
That one game tells us very little.
Now it’s pray Tavares’ finger doesn’t swell, and get ready for a back-to-back weekend with Saturday in Washington and Sunday’s home opener against the Ducks.