Chances are that if you ask the average fan to describe the Rangers’ identity, he or she would simply point to a picture of Artemi Panarin — which would be perfectly understandable. But that’s not quite it.
Well, at least not all of it.
Because though Panarin’s latest rampage, through which he has collected 12 points (4-8) over the past three (yes, three) games, has elevated him to fourth in the Art Ross race with 67 points (26-41), the Rangers did more than admire his five-point outburst in Monday’s 6-2 rout of the Islanders at the Garden.
The Blueshirts were on top of the puck, were strong on their one-on-ones, were in on the forecheck, played a fair amount below the offensive-zone hash marks and applied pretty good pressure in the neutral zone. They hit back and hit first. Indeed, Monday marked one of the club’s most complete performances of the season and reinforced the template for what it is going to take for this young, generally finesse-oriented team to remain a factor in the playoff race.
In winning three of their past four games, the Blueshirts have displayed more of that approach and mentality on a more consistent basis. That’s the identity David Quinn and the coaching staff are attempting to foster within the group.
“I think we have to be a puck-pressure team, I think we have to make teams uncomfortable because we’re not an overly big team and I think we’ve got to keep teams out of their structure,” Quinn said. “I think we’re getting there. We’re not where we need to be, but I think we’ve made some progress in that area.
“There are only so many things you can coach, and you’ve got to coach your team to its strengths and identity. I think that’s the way we’re going to have success. It’s taken some time but I think some of that is on us, too.
“Sometimes you can try to coach too much, talk about the other team, but I think the more that you can focus on a few things for your team and talk about that and demand that, I think they get better at it.”
It will take more of the same for the Blueshirts to prevail in Thursday’s rematch at the Coliseum against an Islanders team that left Manhattan feeling the burn. Actually, it will take more than simply more of the same. This isn’t only about pride for the Islanders, who aren’t that far from tumbling into a wild-card position, and don’t have a take-it-for-granted edge on a playoff spot after having won only six of their past 14 games (6-6-2).
“You know they weren’t happy with their effort [Monday],” Marc Staal said. “We have to be prepared for a much different opponent. They’re going to be much better. But it’ll be fun going back there. It’s one of my favorite places to play.”
The last Rangers-Islanders game at the Coliseum, which at the time everyone had good reason to believe would the last Battle of New York ever played at the old barn, was played on March 10, 2015. The Blueshirts won 2-1 on an early third-period goal from Rick Nash that deflected in off then-Islander Ryan Strome after the Rangers had tied it midway through the second period on the signature goal of Kevin Hayes’ career, that power 360-spin move stuff shot off a breakaway.
Staal, Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast are the lone remaining Rangers who dressed for that one. Henrik Lundqvist was still recuperating from the vascular injury he had sustained at the end of that January, so Mackenzie Skapski backed up Cam Talbot. Lundqvist will back up Alex Georgiev for this one, the Rangers going with No. 40 because of his work against the Islanders the past two years (3-1, .957, 1.21) and not as a pre-deadline showcase.
“We have guys who still haven’t played against half of the league,” Kreider said of the return to Long Island. “It’s a great experience. playing there. It’s always fun.”
Monday was contentious throughout, the match featuring two fights in the first period and a pair of confrontations late in the third. There is no reason to believe this will be any different. The Islanders will attempt to maintain their structure. The Rangers will attempt to play to their identity.
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