(Our heroes are trudging into their very first game of the year with some bumps and bruises – most seriously, a fractured ankle for Jaroslav Halak.)
“...and that’s our pregame,” Al Trautwig said. “We now take you live to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for opening night – and what a way to start. The Islanders host the Rangers; here on MSG we have Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti; for the Islanders broadcast team of Brendan Burke and Butch Goring, MSG 7+; please consult your programming guide. Should be somewhere in the high thousands.”
Frustrated fans trying to scroll high enough on their cable boxes missed the first few shifts, and were likely completely confused when they finally got to see what was going on: league opener between two bitter in-city rivals headlined by one team’s backup and the home team’s third goalie.
Rangers fans at least realized what was going on from the beginning: Henrik Lundqvist was still nursing an “upper body injury,” and Jeff Gorton started Ondrej Pavalec. Isles fans inclined to be insulted were instead left wondering why Kristers Gudlevskis was in for Thomas Greiss. It wasn’t until the first TV time-out that Burke revealed to the fans who’d found the broadcast that Greiss had taken ill that afternoon and Doug Weight called the switch just after warmups.
Gudlevskis did look sharp early, but the Rangers broke through on the power play late in the first, on a one-timer by JT Miller off a feed from Pavel Buchnevich. Chris Kreider started the play with a stretch pass from his zone that trapped Nik Kulemin, and then beat the rest of the play down the ice. As a result, Thomas Hickey and Ryan Pulock were stuck defending 3-on-2 and Buchnevich’s pass found the seam through to Miller.
Kreider’s strong play continued early in the second, a pure hustle play in which he and David Desharnais forced a turnover and left Gudlevskis helpless; Kreider tapped it in backdoor and the Isles trailed 2-0 less than a minute into the middle stanza.
The cameras predictably went to the press box to find the new GM, watching the game behind slender eyeglasses and steepled fingers. “Well, he can’t be happy about the defensive structure here, Brendan,” Goring said. “They’re not doing Goodlifters any favors.”
“At this point, shots are 14-5 for the Rangers, and none of the Isles’ few chances could be called threatening,” Burke agreed.
“Guys, what the hell?” Weight snapped when his charged trudged back to the bench, heads down, as a distressing amount of Barclays Center cheered and stamped.
Thomas Hickey shook his head. “My fault, I missed the chip and I thought Nelly was open.”
“On me,” Brock Nelson replied. “I got caught flatfooted. Didn’t see Kreider come through.”
“I should have taken the man at the back post,” Boychuk said.
“Keep your feet moving,” Cronin said, clapping a few times. “And if you have to chip it out to get a change with the long bench, then do it. Let a fresh player chase it back down.”
But the ideal, of course, was to control the puck and counterattack, and the Isles managed much better over the rest of the period. Seven minutes into the second, it paid off: de Haan played catch behind the net with Boychuk and it opened a lane for him to find Anders Lee in clean transition. Lee caught the Rangers by surprise, cutting from the middle to the boards before spying Jordan Eberle, fresh off the bench, mirroring him through the zone. Lee’s feed led him perfectly to the forehand and he split the defense for a clean break.
The crowd anticipated the pass almost at the same time Eberle did. Even as Lee fed him the puck, the buzz rose, the “Good things are happening” noise unique to a packed hockey arena. Eberle showed backhand and cut right, shielding the puck from Brendan Smith and firing low on Pavalec – a little lower than he wanted and Pavalec got the top of his pad on it, but the puck came right back to Eberle, who neatly recollected it and popped it over Pavalec’s glove to put the Isles on the board.
That’s when Barclays roared over the goal horn. “Jordan Eberle’s first as an Islander, and the Islanders’ first of the new season, and we have ourselves a hockey game!” Burke called it.
The crowd settled in again, but that was it for scoring in the middle stanza. But the Isles kept up their strong play into the third, and cashed in at 5:12. Tavares and Bailey found themselves with a chance at the end of a shift. Bailey, on his off-wing, couldn’t fire through Brady Skjei, so he took it backhand, bounced away from the check, and cut hard behind the net, using the cage to pick Skjei. The Rangers forwards, coming back hard, took away Tavares in the slot, but Kulemin was open near side, and he fired home Bailey’s touch pass over Pavalec’s shoulder, high near side.
Just as the Rangers’ second goal seemed to goad the Isles into action, so the home side’s second goal lit the fire for the visitors. They upped the pressure, Casey Cizikas took a bad frustration penalty, and once again transition defense was the Isles’ undoing – this time it was Mats Zuccarello with the honor of the finish, and the Isles’ other penalty-killing defenders, de Haan and Boychuk, left looking foolish.
Goring picked up on the parallel right away. “The Isles’ forwards are getting caught high, and the Rangers are sending that third man right through the high slot. The defense is looking confused right now, Brendan.”
“It’s like they’re not sure which of them should cover that cutter.”
“It should be low forward,” Goring said, “but Tavares is wide as the play develops, and Clutterbuck’s inside Zuccarello but too high.”
McBea had gone from steepled fingers to a hand over his mouth, as if clamping down some salty language, but at ice level, Weight was doing something about it – and it was a surprise to all. Next time over the boards, Mat Barzal was centering the top line with Lee and Bailey.
A Ranger counterattack broke down soon after the change, and Barzal found himself with the loose puck. He dangled Kevin Hayes, walked Marc Staal (who’d also been trapped on Eberle’s cut through the middle on the first goal), and fed Bailey perfectly for the game-tying goal with five minutes left.
From there, the Isles stayed out of the box. Overtime solved nothing. An exciting (if erratic) night of hockey ended with shootouts, and Gudlevskis, who’d played well all night, found little difficulty with Buchnevich, Nash, or Zibanijad. Eberle and Tavares were also stopped, but the third shooter, Nelson, gunned home a wrister, low blocker side, and the Isles claimed the second point and bragging rights.
Gudlevskis stopped 28 of 31 during the match and Bailey was named first star. The penalty kill came in for decidedly lower marks, and it was the main topic of discussion during both the postgame remarks and the Lighthouse recap thread.
TO BE CONTINUED