John Tavares (Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Yeah, it's early – but Adam Proteau says the reversal of fortunes of the Islanders and Rangers has the New York City-area hockey scene looking unfamiliar. How long can it last?
Try getting this to make sense in your head: the defending Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers have lost three of their first four games and their superstar goalie has surrendered 12 goals in his two most recent games – and their cross-town counterparts, the New York Islanders, as hard-luck and bad-news of an operation as has existed in recent memory, are basically unstoppable.
I’m not saying either ever was out of the realm of possibility. I’m just saying that any NHL fan in the Manhattan area has grown accustomed to a certain pecking order of late: the Rangers on the heap's top, bankrolled by owner James Dolan’s fortune and steered by GM Glen Sather’s whims on the free agent and trade market; in the middle, the New Jersey Devils, a.k.a. the little engine that almost always could qualify for the playoffs (and, on occasion, a deep post-season run) despite existing on an internal budget and a revolving door of talent; and at the bottom, the Isles, consistently flailing in the obscurity of decrepit Nassau Coliseum, newsmakers almost exclusively for their errors and economic soap operas.
For now, at least, the Devils remain the same – they're essentially the cast of Cocoon on the cheap, yet they lead the Metropolitan Division with three wins in their first three games – but, as evidenced by the Isles’ 6-3 romp over the Rangers Tuesday, the Blueshirts and Islanders have traded places.
The former has scrambled around lost on the ice as it tries to acclimate to life without departed veterans Brad Richards, Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle, as well as injured vets Derek Stepan and Dan Boyle; even worse, Henrik Lundqvist has been abysmal in his past two games, allowing a dozen goals on 51 shots. All in all, they look nothing like the team that won three playoff series last spring.
Meanwhile, what can you say about the Islanders? Start with the fact that, through three games – albeit, two against the lowly Hurricanes – they look like an old-school, joy-to-watch juggernaut. Then move on to focus on the outstanding John Tavares (five assists and seven points so far, including a goal and three points against the Blueshirts Tuesday), who thus far is justifying the expectations of those who have him pegged as a frontrunner for the Hart Trophy this season.
But from there – and unlike in many other Isles seasons – you can continue saying good things about virtually every member of the roster. Goalie Jaroslav Halak stopped 40 of 43 Rangers shots Tuesday and has the potential to be that good all season long. Sophomore center Brock Nelson leads the team in goals (four) and is tied with Tavares for the lead in points; new acquisitions Johnny Boychuk and Mikhail Grabovski have combined for four goals and nine points; and Kyle Okposo (five points) and Ryan Strome (four points) are producing at more than a point-per game pace. There might just be some depth here after all.
Again, it must be stressed how limited the test sample is here. The Rangers have the likes of Martin St-Louis and Rick Nash to help remedy things, and the Islanders have a much stiffer test the rest of October (facing the Sharks, Penguins, Bruins and Stars by Oct. 25). A return to the old normal may happen before the season is through.
But look at the Rangers’ schedule in the coming weeks: they get the Canes in their next game, but after that, they face San Jose, New Jersey, Montreal, Minnesota, Winnipeg, St-Louis and Detroit. It’s entirely likely they can, if not bury themselves, then at least begin the excavation process.
It’s amazing how quickly the pressure seizes on NHL teams. But players know how crucial a good start is to the rest of their season. And for a long time, for the majority of years, you could reasonably expect the Rangers to get off to that good start and the Islanders to fail to achieve such a goal.
That’s not the case so far this time around. But in the weeks to come, we’ll see if this is the new normal for the New York greater hockey scene, or if this is a momentary mirage before the familiar sets in.