Round 1 to the Rangers. And by knockout.
The Rangers and the Islanders have two more of these showdowns to go within the next week, but when the Battle of New York finally arrived on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, it was the Blueshirts who landed a convincing opening salvo, shaking off a stunning start to take command of a 6-2 drubbing of their archrivals before a charged-up Garden crowd.
As that crowd has witnessed time and again this season, much of the damage was done by Artemi Panarin, who played his first Rangers-Islanders game and racked up five points on the night, scoring twice and setting up three others to match a career best.
It was the Rangers' fifth straight win on Garden ice, and their ninth win in 10 games within the Metropolitan Division. And it gives the Rangers some momentum to ride -- and the Islanders something bitter to chew on -- until this rivalry mini-series shifts to Nassau Coliseum on Thursday.
It all might have taken on a different script, had the Blueshirts not moved beyond a start that they admitted had them staggered. The Islanders jumped in front just 18 seconds into Monday night's match, leaving the Rangers "a little bit shellshocked," David Quinn said -- but not long after, back-to-back scraps by Micheal Haley and Brendan Smith seemed to sharpen the Rangers' teeth, a goal in the trenches from Jesper Fast drew them even, and they went on to answer Jordan Eberle's early marker with six consecutive goals of their own to turn a physical game into a runaway.
"We had everybody pulling in the right direction tonight," Quinn said afterward.
Five different Rangers scored in the game, including the pair from Panarin and a big one from Long Island's own Adam Fox, who added an assist. Chris Kreider and Jacob Trouba also scored, while Panarin's linemate Fast matched his career bests with a goal and two assists and a plus-3 night, during which he played the role of bulldog to Panarin's Best in Show.
Four nights after Tony DeAngelo had put up his first career five-point game at the Garden, Panarin did it for the second time in his career, his first as a Ranger. He and Andy Bathgate, in November of 1961 at the old Garden, are the only Rangers ever to string together four straight home games with three or more points in each. And Panarin has now moved himself up to third in the NHL in scoring, and with the season past the halfway point he has given every indication of making a serious run at Jaromir Jagr's franchise record of 123 points in 2005-06.
"Every now and then he one-ups himself, and he did that again tonight," Quinn said of his star left winger. "Right when you think you've seen it all, he does so many great things out there for us. We talked about it when we signed him over the summer: Everybody stands a little bit taller, and they put the chest out a little further, and they have a little bit more swagger. But I think he's given us a lot more than that."
"Every game something special happens," said Alexandar Georgiev. "Every game he helps us."
Georgiev was pretty special himself, which against the Islanders is becoming par for the course -- he entered this night with an 0.87 goals-against average in three career games against the Rangers' rival, a minuscule number that was guaranteed to go up once Eberle took a pinballing puck and opened the scoring after just 18 seconds had been played. But the goaltender put it aside and went on to stop 32 of the next 33 shots he saw, some of them extremely timely saves -- he turned out all 16 Islander shots in a second period during which the visitors made their late push -- before the Rangers were able to break the game open in the third.
"And you can't underestimate what Smith and Haley do for us," Quinn said. "We're not an overly big team, but those guys mean an awful lot to us."
Those acts came 2:13 in, when Haley and Ross Johnston squared off at center ice, and then as the teams were lining up for the ensuing draw, Smith dropped his mitts with Matt Martin. Neither Smith nor Martin were expecting the consequences of their fight -- both were ejected, given game misconducts for being involved in the second fight during one stoppage in play. Presumably, had they waited an extra beat for the puck to be dropped to technically restart play, they would have remained in the game; as it was, Smith's night was finished with 29 seconds of ice time on his ledger, Martin with 10 seconds.
But from the Rangers' perspective, never was so little ice time so effective. "Those guys definitely give us a jolt and got our team going," Trouba said.
That jolt was obvious when the Rangers were the more threatening team during an early Islanders power play, then showed up on the scoreboard when Fast lowered his shoulder and drove through Nick Leddy to swat home a rebound of Panarin's long shot at 8:14.
After that, it was all Blueshirts. Kreider continued his own hot scoring with his 15th goal on a tip of another long Panarin shot 5:06 into the second, then Fox made it a two-goal edge when he burned Anthony Beauvillier atop the right circle and beat Semyon Varlamov (29 saves) short-side from a sharp angle.
Fox, who grew up in the shadow of the Coliseum a diehard Ranger fan, was playing his first-ever game against the Islanders. "Scoring against a team that was 10 minutes from my house was pretty cool," he said afterward.
Once Georgiev shepherded the two-goal cushion into second intermission, "I was just really proud of our third period," Quinn said. "Not just the goals -- I thought the way we approached the third period was a mature approach by us. And it's a good sign."
Those goals came from two Panarin breakaways -- the first unassisted off a turnover, the second set up by Fast's hustling backcheck and steal, and Ryan Strome's saucer pass -- and one Trouba blast, that one sending Varlamov to the bench to let Thomas Greiss mop things up.
Before it was said and done, though, the Rangers took exception to a pair of Islanders taking runs at Mika Zibanejad at center ice in the dying minutes of a blowout -- Kreider and DeAngelo both went after Brock Nelson for that, and both spent the game's final five minutes in the dressing room. They will next be seen on Thursday night, when the Battle of New York moves over to Nassau County and the intensity that was evident from the start of this game builds into the next.
"Any time you play three games in a week, there's going to be emotions that carry over," Quinn said. "But that being said, we've got to play hockey."
Round 1 to the Rangers. Round 2 on Thursday night.