Rangers roll into Stadium Series while Isles eye playoff push

By Thomson Reuters Feb 16, 2024 | 11:40 PM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A six-game winning streak has enhanced the chances the New York Rangers will perform in the spotlight of the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring.

For the New York Islanders, Sunday afternoon is about beginning a late-season push to try to ensure an outdoor game against their archrivals isn’t their only opportunity on the national stage.

The Rangers will look to continue surging and the Islanders will attempt to gain ground in the playoff race Sunday afternoon, when the teams meet in the Stadium Series at MetLife Stadium, the home of the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets.

The Rangers extended their winning streak to six Thursday night, but lost right winger Blake Wheeler, who suffered a serious lower leg injury in a 7-4 victory over the visiting Montreal Canadiens.

The Islanders have been off since Tuesday when they fell to the visiting Seattle Kraken 2-1 in a shootout.

The six-game winning streak ties a season-high for the Metropolitan Division-leading Rangers, who have outscored their opponents 25-11 while holding a six-point lead over the Carolina Hurricanes entering Saturday.

“The outdoor game is going to be a fun experience for everyone and it’s still a big two points,” said Rangers defenseman Adam Fox, who had four assists Thursday. “We’re trying to keep this going,”

The Rangers’ pursuit of their first Stanley Cup since 1994 — and only their second since 1940 — will have to keep going without Wheeler, a first-liner who was injured when he fell awkwardly behind the Montreal net in the first period.

Wheeler, who had nine goals and 12 assists while playing on the first line, was ruled out for the regular season Friday, though the Rangers are hopeful the 37-year-old could return if they make a deep playoff run.

“When you lose a veteran player like that, who has such an impact in the room, that’s tough to replace,” Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette said after Friday’s practice at MetLife. “Certainly our thoughts are with him and a healthy recovery at some point. But that’s a tough one (Thursday) night. We’ll miss him.”

The Islanders, who will be the home team Sunday, are as close as they’ve been to fully healthy in several months as they approach the must-win portion of their schedule.

Though only six players have taken the ice for every game, every player from the season opener Oct. 14 was in uniform Tuesday except healthy scratch Sebastian Aho and Hudson Fasching (lower body). Star center Mathew Barzal, who has a team-high 56 points, returned to practice Friday after sitting two days for maintenance reasons.

The Islanders are 3-3-2 since Patrick Roy replaced Lane Lambert as head coach Jan. 20 and entered Saturday three points behind the Detroit Red Wings in the race for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

“Every game is a playoff game,” center Bo Horvat told Newsday after the loss to the Kraken. “We’ve got to be at our best every night. We’ve got to be better than we were tonight.”

Facing their rivals for the first time this season should ensure no shortage of motivation for the Islanders.

“It’s something we’ve been looking forward to — not just the outdoor game, but having the chance to play (the Rangers) because they always bring the best out of us,” said Casey Cizikas, one of four Islanders, along with Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Brock Nelson, who played in the franchise’s only other Stadium Series game, a 2-1 loss to the Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Jan. 29, 2014.

Nelson had the lone Islanders’ goal in that game while Clutterbuck collected the primary assist. Chris Kreider is the lone remaining Rangers player from the 2013-14 team.

–By Jerry Beach, Field Level Media