Cup Fever Sweeps New York

For the first time since 2007, both New York NHL teams are in the playoffs – and both teams are making some noise.

The sixth-seeded New York Rangers, after falling behind the Washington Capitals 2-0 in the series, have tied things up at two games apiece. The Blueshirts’ best postseason performer (much like the regular season) has been goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who through four games has a 2.44 GAA and .922 save percentage.

“King Henrik” has allowed some soft goals thus far, but it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that’s just what happens. Things get weird in the playoffs – rebounds, deflections, etc. – but Lundqvist has stood tall through four games versus Washington. Hank has kept Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin to just two points (one goal, one assist) thus far in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

On a half-related note, Ovi pulled this stunt in Game 4 at MSG Wednesday Night.

As far as skaters go, Carl Hagelin has arguably been the most impressive Ranger. After scoring twice in Game 4, Hagelin increased his playoff total to four – two goals, and two helpers. Hagelin’s speed, combined with his ability to finish, has been giving Washington fits in this series.

(Case in point: Hagelin netted this beauty of a goal during the Rangers’ Game 4 victory.)

If the Rangers wan to keep their momentum going, the most important factor for them is Rick Nash. Nash, one of the league’s most talented players, hasn’t really “Made it Nashty” too often through the first four games, as he only has one point – an assist – in the postseason. As a matter of fact, Nash has just two goals and an assist in his last eight games, including the regular season.

In fairness to Nash, he did take a page out of MSG co-tennant JR Smith’s book when he “got the pipe” near the end of regulation in Game 2. Close doesn’t cut it though, and after coming to New York in a big offseason trade, the Ranger faithful will surely be getting on Nash soon if he doesn’t produce when it matters most. He’ll get his next chance to impress Friday night at 7:30, when the Rangers and Caps drop the puck in our nation’s capital for a pivotal Game 5.

Now, let’s shift a few miles east.

The New York Islanders are in the midst of their first playoff appearance since 2007 – a first round exit to the Buffalo Sabres. Like 2007, the Isles are the Eastern Conference eight seed. However, unlike 2007, the Isles already have two wins over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Penguins and have forced at least a Game 6 in the series.

The Isles currently trail the Pens 3-2 in the series, but have a chance to even things up again on Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum. There have certainly been some problems for the Islanders this series – bad line changes, silly penalties and less-than-stellar goaltending have all proven costly through the first five games. However, the heart and resiliency this team has shown has the fans beLIeving (see what I did there?) that anything is possible – including another comeback, and potentially even a monumental first round upset.

Going back to that goalie thing, though. Veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who had a good regular season, simply is not getting the job done in the first round against Pittsburgh.

Nabokov has some ugly stats for the series, including a save percentage of .847% (yuck) and a GAA of 4.69 (double yuck). Believe me, I understand what Nabokov is up against. Playing against an All-Star lineup with an (at times) overly aggressive defense in front of him is certainly no easy task. However, Nabokov has allowed some absolutely brutal goals, including a Douglas Murray shot that hopped over his shoulder an into the net.

Now, while Nabby has been the Isles’ best goalie all season without question, I believe Jack Capuano has a serious goaltending decision to make for Saturday’s Game 6. Kevin Poulin has stopped 14/15 shots this series (having come in in relief in Games 1 & 5). Does Capuano go with the 23 year-old backup, or stick with the (struggling) guy who got him there? That’s a tough call, and I’m glad I’m not the one to make it.

Let’s get to the positives from this series for the Islanders, because there have been a few. For one, Kyle Okposo has finally turned into the player everyone thought he could be. Through five playoff games, he has four points and a team-leading three goals. One of his biggest contributions, however, had nothing to do with point totals. Coming off a 5-0 drubbing in Game 1, the Isles found themselves down early again in Game 2. Down 3-1, Okposo took matters into his own hands (or fists) when Pittsburgh D-Man Matt Niskanen took out Matt Moulson in the neutral zone.

Okposo’s first career fighting major sparked the Isles to an inspired comeback, and very well may be the reason the team is still playing games.

Another positive for the Isles thus far has been the first overall pick from the 2009 Draft, John Tavares. The young superstar’s first playoff series is going quite well. Tavares has two goals and two assists through five games, and scored the eventual game-winner in Game 5, and it was a beauty. JT danced through the defense, put a shot on Fleury, knocked home the rebound, and sent the already-raucous Nassau Coliseum into a frenzy.

The Old Barn will be rockin’ again this Saturday night, but with a more nervous feel to it. Facing elimination, the Isles need to do a better job defensively against Crosby, Malkin, and the like. Just a reminder to Isles fans: In 1993, the Islanders dropped Game 5 of their playoff series to the Penguins.

Two games later, David Volek put the nail in Pittsburgh’s coffin. It ain’t over yet, folks.

So maybe neither the Islanders nor the Rangers are top-notch NHL squads. Maybe they’ll both be out within a few days. But for now, buckle up and enjoy the ride. Not much is better than the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Follow James on Twitter at @JamesStumper.

We Want Playoffs!

Grabner, who scored twice Tuesday, rips a puck down the ice against Florida. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Grabner, who scored twice Tuesday, rips a puck down the ice against Florida. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tuesday night at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was Fan Appreciation Night, and for the first time in a while, the Islanders faithful finally have something to appreciate.

The Islanders won again Tuesday night, lighting up the Florida Panthers 5-2. The Isles got contributions from all over, including two pretty goals by Michael Grabner.

The latest win gave the Islanders 49 points, good for sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference and one point out of sixth. The Isles are now 7-1-2 in their last 10 games, and the playoff-starved fans on Long Island (and this one, who’s currently in New Jersey) are flying high. April the last five years at Nassau Coliseum hasn’t sounded like much of anything, because it’s been empty. However, these days, the old barn in Hempstead sounds like this.

The fan base is energized, and with good reason. The Isles haven’t made the playoffs since they snuck in as the eighth seed in 2006-2007, when folk hero Wade Dubielewicz led the team to an improbable late-season run. Now, they are in prime position to do so.

At the season’s outset, it didn’t seem like the Islanders would have much of a chance with the much-improved (or so we thought) New York Rangers, perennial-favorite Penguins, Flyers and Devils all in their division. However, the Isles have surprised everyone, and now have a magic number of eight points to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Any combination of eight points gained by the Islanders or lost by the Winnipeg Jets will put the Islanders into the playoffs for the first time in what seems like an eternity.

The final push will not be easy though, as New York hits the road for their final five games of the regular season, including a huge game in Winnipeg this Saturday night.

There have been many individual players that have impressed this season. John Tavares, with 24 goals, is making a legitimate case to be the Hart Trophy winner. Evgeni Nabokov has been front and center for a goaltending crew that hasn’t allowed more than two goals in nine consecutive games, tying a franchise record that was set in 2001.

However, what has been most impressive about the Islander’s playoff push is the team aspect that has finally come together. Secondary scoring  (as in goals from people who aren’t named John Tavares or Matt Moulson) is finally coming from players that we knew had potential all along. Guys like Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey are finally starting to come into their own after years of underachieving. This squad also has role players who do the dirty work, as Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald have all become fan favorites.

And let’s not forget Mark Streit. The captain since signing a deal in 2008, Streit has experienced zero success in the orange and blue. In the final year of that contract, he is finally in contention for a spot in the NHL’s big dance. Last night Streit addressed the Coliseum faithful after the win, thanking them for their support all season.Hopefully for Streit and the Isles, they’ll be back on the ice at the Nassau Coliseum sooner rather than later. As for now, they’ll take their act north of the border, with their next game Thursday night in Toronto.

Right now, the players are asking the fans to do one thing: beLIeve.