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 and New York Islanders have a very unique rivalry. I've played on both sides, so I know how it is.
The Rangers are a Stanley Cup-contending team; the Islanders are much improved and continue to get better. There is a lot of star power on both sides, but more importantly there are bragging rights on the line. It's what's going to be in the headlines the next day.
Everyone who takes the Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and subway; you always see people rocking Rangers gear or Islanders gear. If you're not from this area and haven't had the privilege of living or playing here, you can't really understand it but people live the rivalry here. They don't just love it. They aren't just fans of it. They live the rivalry here. The players want to see what those headlines are going to be the next day. There's pride and a bragging-rights factor to that too, to say, "We beat the Rangers last night" or "We beat the Islanders last night."
This will be the first regular-season game between the rivals in Brooklyn; it will give the rivalry a different flavor, but still it should be as intense as ever. Rangers-Islanders isn't just another game. The Rangers always bring out the best in the Islanders. The Islanders always play them hard.
The Rangers (17-6-2) visit the Islanders (13-8-1) at Barclays Center in Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Henrik Lundqvist is on an MVP pace. I've said before that he's my pick for the Vezina Trophy and should strongly be considered for the League MVP as well. He's the glue that holds them together. Night in and night out, he's bailed them out and made save after save even when the team struggles to score.
Offensively, they've averaged almost three goals per game. Rick Nash has been a big part of that. He has eight goals this season and six in six games. Mats Zuccarello has been outstanding as well; he's their leading point scorer and goal scorer.
Also, the Rangers have managed to accrue points while not playing anywhere near their potential or the most consistent hockey they can yet. And we know how important points can be when the end of the season comes around.
Minuses: They're one of the best teams in the League, but they're not playing as quick or with the same tempo as they did last season. They scored more in transition and were attacking teams with stretch passes through the middle of the ice a lot more. The loss of Carl Hagelin (traded to the Anaheim Ducks) factors into that.
The Rangers haven't been defending the way they have in the years past. They've been riding Hank's cape, which is why they've allowed only 2.1 goals per game. The loss of defenseman Kevin Klein, who will be out 2-3 weeks with a strained oblique, hurts. It will mean more minutes for untested rookie Dylan McIlrath. Also, Derek Stepan, their top center, has broken ribs and will be out 4-6 weeks. That's a huge loss.
Pluses: For the Islanders, it starts with John Tavares, who was a finalist for the Hart Trophy last season and looks like himself. He's having another fine season. Then there's Kyle Okposo, who has turned it on lately, too. Both of them are making plays.
Don't be surprised if the Islanders' fourth line makes an impact. Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck have been great, scoring two goals in New York's 5-3 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday. It's the best fourth line in hockey right now.
Overall they've gotten good goaltending. Jaroslav Halak (6-4-2) has a 2.02 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage, but I've been more impressed with Thomas Greiss, who hasn't been playing like a backup. He's made the past two starts and been outstanding. Besides Greiss' 7-3-2 record, he has a 2.30 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. It's nice when coach Jack Capuano can feel just as confident rolling out either goalie any night.
In a game that's sure to be physical, the Islanders have the advantage, which is another plus for them.
Minuses: One thing we saw consistently from the Islanders last season was a relentless forecheck. We haven't really seen the same consistency from them. I'm not talking about the Stanley Cup Playoffs of games against the Rangers, but every game. The fourth line has been the only one able to forecheck in every game this season.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Will the Rangers play as fast as they can? The Rangers thrive on speed; they're not as good if they're not playing fast.
2. The Islanders' fourth line. How will they impact the game?
3. Rangers' speed vs. Islanders' forecheck. At their best, the Islanders can be relentless. The Rangers need to use their speed to avoid being penned in their own zone.