NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Odds are good that the Islanders and the Rangers will make the playoffs, but what shape each will be in when they get there is anyone’s guess.
The NHL season is a grind and right now the two New York teams are finding out why. Key injuries have taken their toll, as have scoring slumps by some players who played big parts in fast starts earlier in the season.
The Islanders (34-18-1) entered play Tuesday in first place in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of Pittsburgh, but have not been the same team since losing veteran forward Kyle Okposo to a reported eye injury prior to the All-Star break. Since their 4-1 win over the Rangers to start the unofficial second half, the Isles have lost four of six, scoring just a combined 11 goals.
Okposo, who has 14 goals this season and is the other constant next to John Tavares (24 goals, 51 points) on a top line constantly holding tryouts for its third member, is not expected back until mid-March. In the interim, the Isles need others to pick up the scoring slack.
One player who could be a huge difference-maker during Okposo’s absence is Brock Nelson. However, the talented second-year forward has done little to nothing since putting up 10 goals in his first 20 games, registering just five over his last 33 games, including his current 14-game goal-less drought.
The Islanders could be buyers at the March 2 trade deadline, but odds are long they’ll deal from their limited pool of high draft picks in 2015 and ’16, or part with any of their touted prospects for just anyone. Veterans the Isles could potentially target have to fit into a system that relies heavily on speed and forechecking, and into a roster built to sustain winning for many years.
The more likely scenario has the Isles riding their 25-man roster depth in the hope of being near the top of the conference when Okposo returns.
The Islanders have a chance to put some distance between themselves and their pursuers in the division over the next week. They begin a four-game homestand Tuesday night against lowly Edmonton and then face two teams outside the top eight in the East in Toronto and Columbus. They will then take on the Rangers, who they have defeated in all three meetings this season, on Monday.
The Rangers (30-16-5) started slowly, but then went on a tear from late December into early January, winning 13 of 14 to put them in the thick of the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division races.
However, they have since split their last 12 and now find themselves in seventh place in the conference and four points behind the Islanders in the division.
Compounding things is the fact that the Blueshirts are in the early stages of a long run without starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The 2011-12 Vezina Trophy winner has missed the last two games and is not expected back until sometime in March due to a vascular injury in his neck.
In his place, backup Cam Talbot was in net for a pair of 3-2 losses, first in Nashville on Saturday and then at home against Dallas on Sunday.
The Rangers have been carried all season by likely Hart Trophy candidate Rick Nash (33 goals, 49 points), but could really use a resurgence from veteran Martin St. Louis. The 39-year-old forward has not scored a goal in 12 games and has just four in his last 27 overall. Things got so bad during the loss to Dallas that head coach Alain Vigneault benched his entire top line, including Nash, during the final five-plus minutes of the second period.
Making matters worse, second line winger Mats Zuccarello — who had 59 points a year ago — has just eight goals this season, including one in his last 14 games and two in his last 24.
As for acquiring potential reinforcements at the deadline, the Rangers appear poised to go after players who could upgrade their third and fourth forward lines.
Unlike the Islanders, who get to enjoy some home cooking over the next week, the Rangers will play four straight and five of their next six on the road, starting with Tuesday night’s tilt in Toronto.