It’s here. The first week of the NHL regular season has finally arrived after an unconventional and lengthy pause, playoffs and off-season (with some needless labor strife thrown in because, of course, it’s the NHL after all!) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each Monday, we’ll preview the week ahead for the NY Rangers.
This season’s previews will be slightly different from those you might have read during previous seasons. This is due to the baseball-style schedule featuring only opponents from the newly constituted (Mass Mutual) Eastern Division. The Rangers will only be seeing the Islanders, Devils, Flyers, Capitals, Penguins, Bruins and Sabres, often in sets of two consecutive games. Needless to say, we’re going to get to know these teams really well, and it should make for some very intense hockey.
Games 1 and 2 vs. New York Islanders (0-0-0)
What better way to start the season than with two in a row against the hated Islanders at Madison Square Garden? With Lou Lamoriello at the helm and Barry Trotz behind the bench, the Islanders have been ascendant the last few seasons, while the Rangers have been knee-deep in their rebuild. At the pause last season, only one point separated these teams in the standings. Though the Islanders put together an impressive run to the Conference Finals while the Rangers flamed out early once play resumed in the Toronto bubble.
The Isles’ statistics, both individually and collectively, don’t jump off the page. They are not a dominant puck possession team (29th in the NHL in score and venue-adjusted CF%, and 21st in xGF% last year). Nor did they have a player exceed a point-per-game pace last season. Mathew Barzal led the team in scoring with 60 points in 68 games.
At the risk of using too many cliches, the Islanders adhere to the grinding, defense-first style that is a hallmark of Trotz’s teams. They’re a physical and methodical team that rolls four lines. This a direct contrast to the top-heavy, speed and skill game of the Blueshirts. One thing the two teams have in common is quality goaltending. At some point this year, we’ll get a look at Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders’ supposed answer to Igor Shesterkin.
The Islanders’ roster is mostly the same as the one we last saw 11 months ago. There was some minor contract drama surrounding Barzal during the off-season, but the Islanders signed him to a 3 year, $21M deal over the weekend. However, they traded Devon Toews in order to free up the cap space to sign Barzal. Johnny Boychuk retired as well. Toews was arguably the Isles’ best all-around defenseman, and Boychuk was a fixture for the last six seasons. Derick Brassard also left via free agency. Outside of those roster changes, there shouldn’t be many surprises for David Quinn and the Rangers coaching staff.
Last season, every Rangers-Islanders game was an intense and frantic affair. The Rangers won 3 of the 4 contests, with each game producing memorable moments, none more epic than Mika Zibanejad’s game-winning slapper in OT at the Coliseum. Given the nature of the upcoming season, I’d expect more of the same from these two teams in 2021.
It’s going to be very difficult for teams to build long winning streaks this season. As we often see in the playoffs, it’s difficult to beat the same team in consecutive games. A lot of these mini two-game series will probably end up in splits, meaning that extra points gained by getting to overtime may be even more important than usual in deciding playoff berths.
Given that, I’ll predict the Rangers and Islanders split these first two games. Since that seems a little bland for the first NY Rangers preview, I’ll add some deeper predictions. The Islanders will win opening night 5-4 in OT, but the Rangers will come back on Saturday and win a tense, 2-1 contest. I also think we’ll see the first of many Alexis Lafreniere goals before the week is over.
Stats from Natural Stat Trick.