Three months ago almost every NHL preview did not have the Rangers and Islanders as two teams that would be fighting for the lead in the Metropolitan Division, but as we approach their first matchup Thursday night, it appears that neither team read, watched or listened those predictions -- the Isles and Rangers are tied for second place with 20 points, trailing only the Columbus Blue Jackets by two points for the division lead.
Both teams have taken very different paths to get to this point.
Let's start with the Islanders, who appear to have moved on from losing former captain John Tavares. The stability that Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz have brought to the organization cannot be quantified. While this team is not the most talented, it does not get outworked, plays a much better defensive structure and is keeping the puck out of its own net. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have provided stability between the pipes and the duo of Josh Bailey and Anders Lee have proven that they are not a product of their former captain.
The Islanders (9-6-2) have also seen an emergence of Brock Nelson, who has been steady down the middle with a team-leading eight goals. Free-agent signing Valtteri Filppula has provided depth as the third-line center and Casey Cizikas continues to anchor the fourth line. Add all that up with the reigning Rookie of the Year Mat Barzal, and the Isles look very stable down the middle.
It seems like months since the Rangers (9-7-2) sent a letter to their fans basically saying that they are going to rebuild, and while that is underway, some talented prospects may be speeding up this process. Young defenseman Neal Pionk continues to impress and Jimmy Vesey is starting to show the production that had him in such demand a few summers ago. Rookie center Brett Howden, who came to New York from Tampa in the Ryan McDonagh deal, is opening eyes with an impressive 10 points in his first 17 NHL games. The Blueshirts also have a healthy Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, whom they will need in the lineup on a nightly basis to carry this team offensively and take pressure off the younger forwards on this team.
After a slow start, first-year head coach Dave Quinn has the Rangers on a roll as the club has won six of its last seven games. If the Rangers want to keep this hot streak going, they will need to play better against their hated rivals as the Isles have won 11 of the last 12 meetings between the two, including seven in a row.
Two points will be critical for both teams as they continue to chase the top spot in a surprisingly average and winnable Metro Division. The Blue Jackets have the looming contract distractions of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Penguins and Flyers can't keep the puck out of their own net. The Hurricanes cannot score, despite averaging the most shots per game in the league. The Devils have taken a major step backward and the Stanley Cup champion Capitals may finally be hungover from their binge celebration this summer.
This leaves two very unlikely teams from the Big Apple with the chance to take advantage and totally exceed expectations for this season.