Just three games into the 2011-2012 season, the New York Rangers face more questions regarding their performance than anyone had any reason to expect.
The offense and defense alike have felt the trickle-down impact of the loss of top defenseman Marc Staal, and the result is a Rangers team that heads into Saturday night's matchup on Long Island with something to prove.
If early indications are accurate, the New York Islanders, long the bottom-dwellers of the NHL, are a more potent and legitimate team than in recent years. Their 5-1 trouncing of Tampa Bay on Thursday night demonstrated how explosive they can be as a team, and budding superstar John Tavares clearly appears ready to carry the burden of being the franchise savior.
When you add in Michael Grabner, who follows up a 34-goal performance from last year; Kyle Okposo and his 25-goal-per-year potential; and Matt Moulson, coming off of consecutive seasons of more than 30 goals, the Islanders are without question a team to be taken seriously.
If at some point they choose to bring up Nino Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft who was given a brief look-see with the big club last season, the Islanders will boast of having a truly formidable group of snipers and playmakers. And though it won't happen this year, just wait until the Islanders add the 2011 fifth overall pick, Ryan Strome, to the mix.
The Rangers, on the other hand, are struggling to overcome the reckless decision by management to send the team halfway around the world to play four meaningless games in six nights. The team also played their first two NHL regular season games in Europe, extending the epic journey even further.
It is understood that opening up or solidifying foreign markets is a proven way to generate revenue; however, making the playoffs and lasting more than a round has historically proven to be a remarkably consistent method as well.
It remains to be seen just what the long-term implications of the European fiasco will be.
The team also struggled in the first two games to overcome a curious decision by coach John Tortorella to break up his most effective line from a season ago. The Artem Anisimov line, with Brandon Dubinsky on the left and Ryan Callahan on the right, was the Rangers No. 1 line from last year, in fact if not in name.
Tortorella, however, pulled Dubinsky from the group for the first two games of the season to line him up with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, essentially turning the balanced Ranger team from 2010-2011 into a one-line show. When that one line did not dominate in games one and two, it left the Rangers with a gaggle of mismatched forwards manning the remaining three lines.
Forty-one total shots through the first two games tells you all you need to know about the Rangers' offense thus far.
News out of Rangerville in the past few days, however, indicates that Tortorella is leaning towards putting second-year man Derek Stepan on the left wing of the Richards-Gaborik line. Though Stepan is a natural center and a right-handed shot, the move could prove fruitful due to the fact that Stepan possesses great offensive instincts and plus speed. He will force teams to pay attention to him, and the result will be more space and time for Richards and Gaborik.
Perhaps equally important is that the move that brings Stepan to the first line also reunites Dubinsky with his linemates from a season ago. At the very least, the Rangers' can expect the usual effort and down-low trenchwork that this trio was known for, freeing up the first line to perhaps not have to face whichever line Islanders' coach Jack Capuano would prefer them to face.
Heading into Saturday's matchup on Long Island, the Rangers must prepare to establish early on that they are ready to play. The young Islander team is emotional and enthusiastic, and if they are able to get the home fans buzzing early it could carry them a long way.
It's the formula they used to bury the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, with four goals in the first frame, and the Rangers can expect the same kind of intensity from an Islander team that, thanks to the presence of the New Jersey Devils, never appreciates having to play third-fiddle in a three-team hockey market.
There is also the back story of Islander goalie Al Montoya, a former Ranger's prospect who never got a sustained look with the big club due to Henrik Lundqvist's emergence as an elite netminder. Montoya has possibly emerged as the No. 1 man for the Islanders based on his play, though it remains to be seen if Islanders' management continues to give him the majority of minutes, considering they are paying Rick DiPietro a boatload for the next 60 years or so.
If Montoya is interested in giving the Rangers a peak at what they missed, that motivation alone could allow him to stand on his head. A motivated goalie playing in front of motivated fans can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. The Rangers, consequently, will need to apply the blue-collar approach that has served them so well in recent years. In other words, they'll need to slow the game down, dump and chase, and grind along the boards.
Regardless of the outcome, the game should prove to be quite entertaining. Each of these teams is positioned for years of growth and success due to young, talented rosters, and we could be at the dawn of a hockey renaissance in New York as a result.
While there have been meaningful games between the teams in recent years, the reality is that they've only been truly meaningful for the Rangers in terms of playoff implications.
It's been years since Rangers-Islanders games have had a bearing on anything other than local bragging rights, or playoff positioning for the Rangers only, though it appears that the sands are shifting quickly.
This game is an early test for the Rangers, of course, but also for the Islanders. As such, we can expect each team to step up its game. In the process, long-time fans of each club might be reminded of just how exciting this rivalry can be.
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