The Rangers may have an 11-point lead in the standings on the Islanders--and just beat them outdoors at Yankee Stadium two nights ago--but that doesn't mean the Bluershirts will be underestimating their rivals from Long Island when the two clubs face off once again this evening at Madison Square Garden.
In fact, to the contrary, Rangers players and their head coach have a healthy dose of respect for the Islanders, and are well aware of the combination of grit and skill level they will be facing tonight at Madison Square Garden in the last of five meetings this season between these New York-New York rivals.
"We have to play with an edge all the way through the game and can't relax at any point because this is a team that can strike at will, strike in a heartbeat," explained defenseman Ryan McDonagh. "They have a lot of chemistry. I think they have a core group of guys that have been there for a few years now--just like us--that have grown together. They have a style and a mentality that they play hard for each other--again, it's the same way with our group. You see the chemistry there is coming together fast."
Last season the Islanders were able jell enough in the lockout-shortened 48-game season to snag their first playoff berth in six years. Once in they played an exciting first-round series against the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins, and pushed Pittsburgh to six games before finally losing the series four-games-to-two.
Things have not gone as smoothly for the Islanders this season. They currently sit in last place in the Metropolitan Division with 50 points in 56 games played. Last year they had 55 points in 48 games. Still the Rangers view the Islanders as an extremely difficult opponent.
"They expect more out of themselves now than they did five or six years ago," Henrik Lundqvist said of an Islanders team that has missed the post-season in six of the past eight seasons. "They have a good team, and they know that, and they're fighting for a playoff spot so their desperation may be a little higher now. That in combination with their skill makes them a dangerous team."
When speaking to Lundqvist--or really any of the Rangers--about their New York rivals, the conversation ultimately detours to the Islanders' dynamic top forward line centered by John Tavares--the NHL's second-leading scorer at present and a Hart Trophy finalist at the age of 22 last season--and featuring wingers Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo.
Though the Rangers have done a good job in four games this season keeping that line in check--Tavares, for example, has been held without a point in three of the four games by the Blueshirts--there is a lot of respect in the Rangers dressing room for what Tavares, Vanek, and Okposo are capable of doing.
"Their top line can be really dominant," noted defenseman Dan Girardi. "They have played really well against us, and we always are looking for ways to stop them. It's not easy."
While the defense pairing of McDonagh and Girardi get the bulk of the shifts against Tavares' line, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault pointed out Thursday after practice that the Isles top threesome can maintain extra long shifts, meaning that the defense pair of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman will also play against Tavares, Vanek, and Okposo some tonight, as well.
"They have a dynamic offense with dynamic forwards," Vigneault said of the Islanders. "They're a tough match up for us, a team that likes to take off in transition, so we need to defend well and once we get the puck we need to counter well."
The Rangers have split their first four games with the Islanders this season, winning twice on the road and losing twice--by identical 5-3 scores--at The Garden. In only one game--11 days ago at MSG--did the Islanders top line do great damage against the Rangers, though that fact will not cause the Rangers to prepare any less for Tavares and his linemates tonight.
"We have defended them really well, and we just need to do that again (tonight),"-said Lundqvist.