The spectacle that has become the National Hockey League’s outdoor games featured the New York Islanders for the first time on Wednesday night as they battled with their cross-town rivals, the New York Rangers at frigid Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York.
With a temperature at 7:45pm puck drop that felt like 7 degrees, the late arriving crowd ended up filling to capacity, just under 51,000. And when both teams emerged from their respective baseball dugouts for the pre-game skate, the tension was just starting to mount.
With this being the Rangers third trip to the outdoor stage, it was a first experience for all the Islanders except Thomas Vanek, who participated when a member of the Buffalo Sabres. Early on, it was clear that the ice surface itself was not proving to be as much of an issue as the bouncing puck was. Both teams had tremendous difficulty stringing together cohesive passing through the neutral zone and it was clear as the night progressed, the simple plays would be the most effective.
Even though head coach Jack Capuano had mentioned that aforementioned fact to his troops in the pre-game locker room speech, they seemed to not follow suit. After a tentative and scoreless first period, the Islanders took command in the second, with a relentless forecheck. But with the first line being way too fancy on many occasions, passing up open shots for the riskier pass, it was the Islanders third line that finally got things going.
At the 18:33 mark, impressive rookie Brock Nelson was the recipient of some excellent tenacity and skill showed by his ice-mates. Cal Clutterbuck, heading down the left-wing boards against Marc Staal, proceeded to lose an edge and slip to the ice. While laying on his side, the Islanders forward fed the high slot to a streaking Matt Donovan, who dummied the pass to Nelson on the right side and Brock made no mistake, beating Henrik Lundqvist to give the Islanders a well deserved lead.
For Nelson, it was his 10th goal of a rookie season that has seen his game grow by leaps and bounds with each shift.
Fans have grown to expect short-lived leads this season with the Islanders and tonight would be no exception. Just 40 seconds later, the Rangers would be rewarded for their own tenacity. Derek Brassard drew goaltender Evgeni Nabokov onto his belly behind the net and fed the slot, where Benoit Pouliot would harness a rebound off his chest to fire into the gaping net and just like that, the game was tied again.
With Thomas Hickey taking the wrong route to cut off Brassard and Lubomir Visnovsky getting pushed over way too easily by Pouliot, who was fighting for position in front of the goal, the only Islander left that could have made a difference instead looked disinterested as John Tavares cruised a stride behind the Rangers goal scorer and put nary a stick, arm or any other body part to impede the easy tap-in.
In the third period, the Islanders struggled to get anything going offensively against the tough Rangers defense. Clogging up the neutral zone and protecting the slot in front of Lundqvist, the Islanders fell behind for the last time at the 4:36 mark. As Brock Nelson failed to corral a bouncing puck just inside the Rangers blueline, Brian Strait was imploded by Brian Boyle as the Rangers started a 4 on 2 counter-attack. Keeping it simple was re-visited yet again as Dominic Moore fired a low shot that Nabokov unfortunately kicked right out into the slot. The gift was too enticing for Daniel Carcillo, not known for offensive prowess, to pounce on and drive into the net for the eventual game-winner.
The Islanders mounted a charge in the final minute, controlling the puck in the Rangers zone, looking for the tying goal. But when Kyle Okposo missed a wide open chance from the low slot and the puck caromed into the corner, it was all but over. The horn would sound, fireworks would explode and the Rangers would have their second outdoor win in 4 days.
The Islanders stay 7 points out of the last wild card spot in the Eastern conference with the loss but have played as many as 3 games more than the teams they are chasing. At the end of the day, not enough offensive push from the top line, especially Thomas Vanek, who continues to look distracted by his upcoming contract dilemma. And as is usually the case, the defensive mistakes, even when kept to a minimum, always seem to happen at the most inopportune time. John Tavares spoke post-game about missed opportunities (c/o newyorkislanders.com).
“As big and as great as an experience was… it’s tough to look at the big picture [when you lose],” John Tavares said. “We played well, but at the end of the day, we didn’t get the points we needed. That’s a tough one to give up and we have to do a better job [on the shift after a goal], Tavares said. We played well that period to get that first goal. We have to be harder on pucks and be better by our goaltender.”
The good news? Evgeni Nabokov looked absolutely wonderful in tough conditions and the best Islander on the ice by leaps and bounds was 23-year-old defenseman Matt Donovan. Clearly showing not only that he wants to stay with the big club, but most certainly should, he was all over the ice jumping into the rush at every opportunity while playing sound in his own zone.
“You never really know [how it's going to be] until you’re out there and you see that great atmosphere,” Nabokov said of the experience. “I loved every second of it.” (c/o newyorkislanders.com)
These two teams meet again in Manhattan on Friday night for the last time this season before the Islanders get three days off.
NOTES: An NHL roster freeze will occur for the second time this season, taking effect February 7 and being lifted on February 23. This is to accommodate the Sochi Olympic games.
March 5 is the trading deadline for all NHL teams and sources around the league are saying that Garth Snow is already fielding calls for Andrew MacDonald and Thomas Vanek, in the event contract extension terms cannot be reached by that date. The teams most mentioned in association with those two are the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Minnesota Wild and St.Louis Blues.
Per Art Staple of Newsday, Travis Hamonic did not feel well enough after pushing himself in practice on Monday, leading to his placement on the injured reserve list.
Andrey Pedan is skating in practice with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the first time in two months as he recovers from a concussion.
The Islanders power play is 4 for its last 42 as the penalty killing has picked up, killing 25 of their last 28.
MacDonald led the Isles with 24:15 TOI during the outdoor game. Colin McDonald played a team low 9:43.
With the return of Lubomir Visnovsky, the Islanders have been using Calvin deHaan and MacDonald on the second power play unit points.