Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Richards breaks Isles' back as Rangers run streak to seven

There it was. Matt Moulson injected some life into his struggling team. After he buried a John Tavares saucer pass for a power play equalizer, Nassau Coliseum was alive. There were the Islanders, who entered with only one win in 10, all knotted with their longtime nemesis from Manhattan. The Rangers rolled in winners of six straight. None of that mattered when one of the game's best rivalries was renewed. You could feel the intensity both on the ice and in the stands where noise was at a feverish pitch. It didn't matter what the teams' records were in the second grudge match of six. This was no holds barred.

That's how you could describe almost any game the Rangers and Islanders play. Battles all over the ice. Hitting. Scrums. Fights. Penalties. Goals. Goaltending. Yes, last night's latest installment had all those key factors which exemplifies exciting hockey that's on the edge. Unfortunately for the Long Island hosts, they fell just a little short again, dropping a tough 4-2 decision for their 10th defeat over the last 11. Challenged by their coach Jack Capuano, the Islanders gave a valiant effort. However, the latest big ticket Ranger star delivered the crushing goal late that decided it. The Rangers signed Brad Richards for such moments. Richy Rich didn't disappoint notching the game-winner with 4:55 left in regulation. The Islanders came oh so close with Andrew MacDonald hitting a post in the dying minute but couldn't get one more past Henrik Lundqvist, who was brilliant finishing with 31 saves.

It’s frustrating,” Capuano lamented after his team's latest defeat. “We played one of our better games. ... We have to get secondary scoring to win."
That's been a huge problem for the Isles who fell to 4-8-3 and sit dead last in the East with 11 points. Fifteen games in, a club many felt would challenge for the playoffs is already digging a hole. They trail eighth Ottawa by eight points with defending champ Boston turning it around. It could be a long climb with New Jersey and Tampa Bay likely to be in the mix. Don't discount Carolina either. In an improved conference with early surprises Toronto and Florida, the Islanders can ill afford to have another lull like last year that got Scott Gordon canned.

"It's frustrating. These are the ones you really have to learn from. [The win] was right there [for the taking]," second-year blueliner Travis Hamonic said. "We had it. We made just one mistake and it ended up in our net. At the end of the day we have to learn from that, and now this one is put away. It's a bad feeling. This is a feeling we don't want anymore."
While the Rangers are sitting pretty in a three-way log jam behind first overall Pittsburgh while tied with fifth Philadelphia, the Isles have their work cut out on a pivotal homestand. It shouldn't get any easier when Montreal and Boston visit tomorrow and Saturday before Capuano's club travels to Pittsburgh where Sidney Crosby could be awaiting if the latest rumors are true about a possible return this weekend. They also host the Flyers and Devils next week with a home-and-home in Newark following Black Friday. The Isles end the month with a visit at Buffalo. Not an easy game in the sched. Especially when you're not finishing. Outside of leading scorer Tavares' line, they've been firing blanks.

It didn't help that they ran into one of the game's best in Henrik Lundqvist, who aside from a softy to Frans Nielsen, stood on his head. King Henrik made acrobatic stops, including a signature header before diving across with the right glove to rob an Islander of a certain goal. The Islanders also got brilliant netminding from Evgeni Nabokov, who couldn't quite make it two for two against the Blueshirts despite 26 saves. A few were sparklers, including a sprawling stop to deny Derek Stepan's stuff try with the Isles' goalie down and out. The problem was Josh Bailey's feeble clear attempt cost them dearly. Tied at two with dueling chants from a galvanized crowd, one mistake decided it. Bailey tried going up the middle but his soft backhand was easily intercepted by Brandon Dubinsky, who quickly dished to an open Richards who did the rest- blasting one upstairs with Ryan Callahan screening a helpless Nabokov.

"Whenever you play in this building, it’s up and down, and you never know what’s going to happen,” Ranger coach John Tortorella said. “Richie has had some big plays for us early on here. I thought that it was probably one of his better games.”
We signed him for nine years. That’s exactly why we signed him,” Lundqvist noted of Richards' heroics. “A guy like that, he has a tendency to step up at the right time. His focus is good when it comes down to the final minutes, when you need that extra play. It’s great to see.”
Early on, Sean Avery got the party started scoring for the second consecutive game when he steered home his own rebound. His sudden emergence was rewarded with the once exiled Ranger getting 12 minutes, including a big shift late where his forechecking kept the Islanders pinned in. Nielsen replied back less than three minutes later when his high wrister trickled off Lundqvist's glove, squaring it. Hamonic and P.A. Parenteau combined to spring Nielsen for his fourth. Avery renewed pleasantries with Mike Mottau following matching roughs. Apparently, the ex-Devil can't let go. So, the two fought 69 seconds into the second. It wasn't the only scrap with Brandon Prust battling Islander enforcer Matt Martin 1:45 later.

Though the Isles were better in the second testing Lundqvist, an unlikely source scored the lone goal when Steve Eminger of all people took a brilliant Callahan cross-ice feed and beat Nabokov five-hole. “I saw him creeping in a little bit,” Callahan said. “I was trying to buy him a little bit of time to get him back there. I saw him and made the pass.”

The Rangers had a golden opportunity to salt it away but failed on an extended five-on-three late in the second with Richards hitting goal post. Credit the Isles' penalty killers with outstanding work, blocking a few shots that never reached Nabokov, who was there when needed. That left the door open. After the Blueshirts failed on another power play in the third, two straight penalties finally bit them with Moulson getting his fifth from Tavares and Nielsen to level it with 13:02 remaining. That allowed Richards to play the hero late. A mad scramble late didn't tie the game despite several chances. Eventually, Callahan scored into an open net with under a second left, icing it.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star: Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (31 saves)
2nd Star: Frans Nielsen, NYI (goal-4th of season, assist)
1st Star: Brad Richards, NYR (GW w/4:55 left)

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