The rivalry gets rekindled in the Garden tonight. Here are five factors to consider before the puck drops off Broadway:
The Incapable Offense vs. the Unbreachable Net
The Islanders have sputtered in the offensive zone this season, getting little offense beyond their first line. Currently they rank 29th in the league at just 2.26 goals per game. Conversely, even with a D corps depleted by injury, the Rangers have allowed a meager 2.10 goals per game, the third-best mark in the league. The Islanders can take some (small) solace that Marty Biron will start for the Blueshirts, but that relief would only be based on reputation. Biron has an identical save percentage (.934) as Henrik Lundqvist this season, while posting an even better GAA (1.82).
The Islanders’ Crease
With Al Montoya out, Evgeni Nabokov gets the start. To say Nabokov hasn’t seen much ice time lately would be an understatement. As the Isles have started five different netminders this season, Nabokov hasn’t played a full game since Nov. 15, a 4-2 loss to the Rangers. From the misleading stats department: Nabokov hasn’t allowed a goal since that game, turning aside all 21 shots he’s faced in his past two games … of course that came in less than 35 minutes of playing time.
Matt Moulson continues to provide one of the best values in the NHL, with 15 goals this season. He’s also been on fire in December with 7 goals and 12 points in 9 games. You can expect him and center John Tavares to earn the majority of the Blueshirts’ defensive attention Thursday night.
Blueshirts’ Back End
If there’s a silver lining to all the Rangers’ defensive injuries it’s that players throughout the team’s organizational depth chart are getting ice time in the NHL. If/when Marc Staal and Michael Sauer come back, that’ll help. In the meantime, the pressure will be on the Rangers’ third pairing of fill-ins Stu Bickell and Tim Erixon. With the Rangers on home ice, look for Blueshirt bench boss John Tortorella to try and limit their exposure.
With the "24/7" cameras rolling, I bet we see 110 precent effort from the Islanders. It’s the first of two meetings between the rivals during the TV series window and the show has already made grudge matches a theme, previously emphasizing the Flyers-Penguins rivalry. You can bet the show will do something similar to highlight a clash between the two New York team and there’s no way the Islanders want to be characterized as the step child in this relationship, not with their pride in their Stanley Cup-rich history, and not with the pride the current players have in their locker room. This is going to be a good one.