Disappointment & Suprise: NY Hockey Update

     As the 2021 National Hockey League season unfolds, the New York Islanders and Rangers are off to vastly different starts. The Islanders, coming off their second straight appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, find themselves struggling to string together wins to start the season, as they currently sit in last place of the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers, who have not qualified for the playoffs since the 2017 season, are off to a hot start, currently placing third in the Metropolitan Division and seventh overall in the NHL.  

     The Rangers did not make all too many changes to the roster before this season. After firing head coach David Quinn, the Rangers brought in Gerard Gallant. Gallant was the previous head coach for the Vegas Golden Knights and brought the Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in the franchise’s inaugural season in 2017-18. Their most notable addition was forward Ryan Reaves, who the team acquired via trade with the Golden Knights. Reaves provides the team with a dominant enforcer presence on the ice, which the team notably lacked last season, especially after trading away Brendan Lemieux.  

     The team remains relatively young, with exciting prospects including Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, and K’Andre Miller getting some of their first glimpses of NHL action last season. Defenseman Adam Fox returned after his Norris Trophy winning season, and goaltender Igor Shesterkin returned for his second season as the team’s starter in net.

     After a quick rebuild, the Rangers appear ready to compete. The Rangers have posted an impressive 13-3-2 record since losing the season’s first two games. The team has been led offensively by Chris Kreider, who is having a career topping season at the age of 30. Kreider has netted 15 goals in just 20 games this season, which currently ranks third in the entire league, only behind the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl and the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin. He has gotten plenty of help from the Ranger’s playmakers this season, most notably Adam Fox and forward Artemi Panarin, who boast 17 and 16 assists, respectively. 

     “It starts with a solid powerplay. Kreider has been on fire, and Panarin and Fox have been assist machines,” said social studies teacher and hockey fan Eric Finder. The powerplay for the Rangers has seen tremendous improvement this season; the team that often found themselves ranked in the bottom 10 for power play percentage currently ranks 12 in the league.

     A huge factor in the Rangers’ success so far this season is the excellent play from goaltender Igor Shesterkin. Shesterkin has finally begun to come into his own as the team moves on from longtime goaltender Henrik Lundqvist; Shesterkin currently ranks in the top ten in wins, goals against average, and save percentage. 

     “After receiving the largest ever second contract for a goalie, Shesterkin needed to play well,” said senior Matt Duch. “He currently sits with the five best save percentage in the league and has carried a team that is 29 in total shots so far this season.”

     The Rangers will need to keep up their hot play if they want to see their first playoff appearance since 2017. Playing in the Metropolitan Division, which currently has five of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, they are going to continue to have plenty of battles throughout the season. 

     “I think the Rangers will make the playoffs this season. They are primed to go deep this year and many seasons to come with a young elite core,” added Finder.

     Coming into this season, expectations were nothing short of the best for the New York Islanders. After making their second consecutive appearance in the Eastern Conference Final, once again falling short to the Tampa Bay Lightning, fans believed that this was potentially the year that the team finally got over the hump and became a true threat in competition for the Stanley Cup. The offseason was also rather quiet for the Islanders; the team traded away defenseman Nick Leddy and lost forward Jordan Eberle in the Seattle Expansion Draft, but the team brought in some experience by signing defenseman Zdeno Chara, who returned for his 24 NHL season, his first with the Islanders since 2001.  

     The 2021 season saw the Islanders debut their new arena, the UBS Center in Belmont. The team had been bouncing around between the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the past few seasons. Unfortunately, the first bad break for the Islanders was the fact that their arena was not going to be ready by the time the season started. As a result, the team started their season on an unprecedented 13-game road trip, which was tough for the players physically and mentally. Head coach Barry Trotz even called his team “fragile” as they returned from the grueling road stretch.  

     The Islanders got to opening their new home arena on Nov. 20 against the Calgary Flames, and fans quickly packed the stadium. Part of what has made the Islanders successful at home in the past is the electric energy from the fans in the crowd, and the Islander fans in the UBS Center provided nothing short of that. 

     “Nothing will ever be able to compare to the Coliseum, but the atmosphere at UBS arena was great. It felt intimate as the Coliseum and the crowd was loud,” said senior Sophie Ward.  

     The Islanders ended up taking a 5-2 loss in their home debut. The Islanders hosted the Rangers for the first time at the UBS Center on Nov. 24, with the Rangers coming out on top 4-1.

     The Islanders head into December on an eight-game losing streak, including dropping their first four at home. Along with the fatigue from their elongated road streak, the Islanders have had to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19. The team has been without eight players and three other staff members due to an outbreak within the team, leaving them shorthanded for a couple of games. The league eventually had to cancel multiple matches, including a rematch with the Rangers, because of the outbreak.  

     Brock Nelson has been the team’s leading scorer, tallying nine goals and 11 points in 15 games so far this season. Ilya Sorokin has taken most of the time in net, posting three shutouts and a save percentage of .924 in 13 games. His goaltending companion, Semyon Varlamov, is winless through five appearances this season.  

     The Islanders currently sit in last place in the Metropolitan Division. The team has an abysmal -20 goal differential through their first 17 games, which is third worst in the Eastern Conference. Despite their less-than-ideal start, fans are confident that the team can bounce back.  

      “It will take a lot of grit to bounce back, but the team has proven, time and time again, that it is capable of getting back on track,” Ward said. “We have also proven to be a playoff team, so if we can get there, the playing field will be even.”

       With Barry Trotz behind the bench and the determination of his team, they have proven that they have the ability to overcome obstacles such as this one.