Desperate teams set to battle Friday

December, 19, 2013
12/19/13
3:46
PM ET
GREENBURGH, N.Y. – A rivalry is only as good as the teams involved, right?

Well, at least the Rangers and Islanders will both be desperate teams when they square off at Madison Square Garden Friday night – the second meeting between the division rivals this season.

Both clubs have endured difficult starts to the 2013-14 season. While the Blueshirts’ middling performance through 36 games has them in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, the Islanders have suffered a much more precipitous decline.

After a surprising playoff appearance last spring in which the plucky Isles took a dominant Penguins squad to six games in the quarterfinals, the team has been in an absolute freefall over the last few months.

Jack Capuano’s squad has won only one game in the last 14 and has registered only five regulation/overtime wins this season. They currently reside in 15th place with a 9-19-7 record.

“We need to, obviously, get some wins. Playing well is great but results are what we want and what we expect of ourselves,” captain John Tavares told ESPNNewYork.com earlier this week. “We need to be better.”

Tavares and his linemates Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo will be a trio the Rangers focus on shutting down Friday night. After all, the Blueshirts are a desperate team, too, with only one win in six games of a nine-game homestand.

That trio has combined for 30 of the team’s 81 goals this season, and Vanek wasn’t even around until the blockbuster deal that sent Matt Moulson back to Buffalo in the first month of the season.

“In my estimation, as big of a challenge as containing [Sidney] Crosby’s line last night,” coach Alain Vigneault said of the task.

But the Rangers will be wary of Frans Nielsen and the team’s second line as well. Brian Boyle said he watched the Isles game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday (in which the Isles blew a two-goal lead in the third to fall in the shootout) and said that line generated a “ton of chances.”

“They can hurt you, too, if you’re not careful. They’ve got a ton of speed,” Boyle said. “That top line is dangerous but, we can’t shut them down and think the game’s over.”

Meanwhile, the Rangers appear to be pondering some changes to their lineup in advance of Thursday night’s roster freeze, which begins at midnight.

Vigneault said the coaching staff and management team will huddle Thursday afternoon to make some necessary personnel decisions.

Vigneeault confirmed that defensive prospect Dylan McIlrath, who was a healthy scratch in Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night, will be a player whose status is discussed.

The Rangers do expect to have goaltender Henrik Lundqvist available for the rivalry match. The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner had a stiff neck after the game following an overtime collision with Penguins winger Chris Kunitz.

Though Lundqvist did not partake in the team’s optional practice Thursday, Vigneault is confident he’ll be fine to make his season-high eighth consecutive start.

“If he’s good to go, he’s going to play,” Vigneault said.
Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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