Skidding Islanders meet surging Rangers in key two-game set

NHL Hockey

The New York Islanders spent most of the season’s first three months vying for the franchise’s first division title in more than three decades. But now the Islanders are in danger of suffering a far more ignoble yet no less lasting fate.

The skidding Islanders will look to steady their position in the East Division playoff race Thursday night when they are scheduled to visit the New York Rangers in the opener of a home-and-home series between the Big Apple-area foes.

Both teams were off Wednesday after continuing streaks Tuesday, when the Islanders suffered their third straight defeat with a 1-0 loss to the Washington Capitals and the Rangers earned their third consecutive win by beating the Buffalo Sabres 3-1.

The results tightened the back half of what was once a mostly suspense-free race for the final playoff spot in the East. The third-place Islanders (29-15-5, 63 points), who were tied for first with the Capitals entering the opener of a three-game series against Washington on April 22, suffered their second 1-0 loss of the set to fall five points out of first while their lead over the fourth-place Boston Bruins shrank to a point by virtue of the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins.

And the Islanders are just five points ahead of the fifth-place Rangers (26-18-6, 58 points), who have gone 16-6-3 since March 13 to gain 12 points on their long-time rivals.

While their hopes of winning a division title for the first time since 1987-88 are evaporating, the Islanders can take solace in their far more recent history of climbing out of late-season holes. The Islanders lost their final seven games before the pandemic shutdown last season to fall into seventh place in the East before mounting a run to the conference finals in the summer bubbles.

“They got the first goal, and I think when things aren’t going well, it seems like it’s harder to kind of break through and get a win,” Islanders left winger Matt Martin said. “There are certainly areas that we need to be a lot better, but we know that we’re a good hockey team. We’ve overcome adversity in the past multiple times, and we have confidence that we’re going to do it again.”

Confidence isn’t an issue for the Rangers, who have surged into the race thanks to the return of star left winger Artemi Panarin — they were 10-12-3 when his nine-game leave of absence ended March 11 — and a fortuitous spot in the schedule. The Rangers are 8-2-1 since April 9, a span in which they’ve gone 7-1-0 against the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres, the bottom three teams in the East.

Rangers head coach David Quinn took particular pride in his team’s timely success against the Devils and Sabres, whom the Rangers outscored 27-10 in six straight wins.

“These games are going to determine who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t,” Rangers head coach David Quinn said. “And the fact we went 6-0 against the Devils and Sabres is no small feat. This is the National Hockey League. It’s not easy to beat teams.”

–Field Level Media

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