Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The New York Rangers haven't had many dips this season. They're tied for the fifth-best record in the NHL and fourth in the Metropolitan Division, eight points behind the first-place Washington Capitals. It's not set in stone, but the Rangers likely will be the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers are going for their seventh straight trip to the postseason. The New York Islanders are hoping to make it three straight seasons, but will have a much tougher time. They sit three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card and will need to make up ground in the final 11 games of the season.
The Islanders have lost four of five games (1-3-1) and begin a tough stretch of four games against teams in a playoff position (Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators), and this is a must-win for them.
The Islanders (33-26-12) and Rangers (45-24-4), longtime division rivals, play at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
[RELATED: For Rangers, home is where heartache is]
Pluses: A lot of credit to their turnaround can be attributed to their coaching change. Since Doug Weight replaced Jack Capuano on Jan. 17, the Islanders are 16-9-4. Remember, they were in last place in the Eastern Conference in November and now are competing for a playoff berth. They're playing a different brand of hockey.
A hallmark of the Islanders is their forechecking, which causes fits for opponents. Led by forward Jason Chimera, when the Islanders dominate in this part of the game, they usually dominate on the scoreboard as well.
Lastly, they have become a more offensive team. It's not all about center John Tavares, although he has played better. Josh Bailey and Anders Lee have fit in nicely with the captain on the first line, giving Tavares something he hasn't had in a long time, or ever; steady linemates. And forward Joshua Ho-Sang has been really good and getting playing time.
Overall, Thomas Greiss has been a good No. 1 goaltender for the Islanders. We saw what he did down the stretch and in the playoffs last season, so we know he's capable of stealing a game or two.
Video: NYI@CAR: Chimers starts and finishes his own play
Minuses: I think their defense still continues to be their Achilles' heel. Johnny Boychuk is out, Travis Hamonic missed a lot of time earlier this season, Dennis Seidenberg was out as well and even the reliable Thomas Hickey has been a healthy scratch in recent games.
Besides the top line, which appears in place for now, the Islanders often go to the blender quite a bit to mix things up. When the losses began to pile up, the lines would get changed more and more frequently. It's hard to develop chemistry with so much juggling.
Lastly, the Islanders don't always use their speed to their advantage. You can bet the Rangers will be flying, so the Islanders will have to keep up with them.
Pluses: Very rarely do the Rangers get out-goaltended. Henrik Lundqvist was on his game prior to getting injured and Antti Raanta has kept the Rangers in every game since, starting the past six. The Rangers have one of the best tandems in the League and got Raanta just for this purpose, as insurance for Lundqvist, who could return as soon as Saturday.
Their speed is a huge factor. Led by forwards Michael Grabner and Kevin Hayes, when they are on their game, it's hard for the opposition to play at the same pace. And we all know how important speed is in the League. Just ask the Penguins, the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
The all-around depth has been huge. The Rangers have 10 players with at least 10 goals, including three 20-goal scorers. They also have 14 players with at least 20 points. That kind of production is something you can never have too much of.
Video: NYR@DET: Hayes buries Miller's pinpoint feed in 2nd
Minuses: The Rangers special teams haven't been good. They rank in the bottom half of the League in both power-play percentage (16th, 18.9 percent) and penalty killing (21st, 79.9 percent). They have allowed a power-play goal in each of the past seven games. However, their own man advantage has gone 6-for-17 since going scoreless in 10 games, so maybe they are getting back on track.
The Rangers have been an excellent home team in recent seasons. They were 27-10-4 last season and 25-11-5 in 2014-15. However, they have not won at the Garden in more than a month. The Rangers are 0-4-2 and have been outscored 23-11 during a six-game home losing streak. They're 19-15-3 at the Garden, not nearly as dominant as they should be.
The Rangers are 26-9-1 on the road but haven't been consistent. They go on swings where they win five, six games in a row and then will lose games 3-1, 4-1 to teams below their level.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The Rangers speed and four-line offensive attack
2. The Islanders forecheck
3. Islanders level of desperation. They need the points more than the Rangers.