Rangers can show off overhaul to rival Islanders

The Tom Wilson game created all the hullabaloo, but by the time May 3 happened at the Garden, the decision already had been made to move on from the executive team of president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton.

And if there was one team responsible for the decision executed by Garden chairman Jim Dolan (other than the Rangers), it was not the Capitals.

It was the Islanders.

And the dates and games that Dolan likely circled were April 20, when the Blueshirts took a 6-1 beatdown at the Coliseum in a match when Jacob Trouba was concussed in the first period on a legal hit by Matt Martin; and April 29 at the Garden, when Ryan Lindgren was suspected to have suffered a third-period concussion in the aftermath of a collision the defenseman initiated with Cal Clutterbuck in a second consecutive embarrassment of a defeat, this one by 4-0.

(There was another humiliation to come two days later on Long Island in a 3-0 defeat in which Martin blithely elbowed Mika Zibanejad in the face without a semblance of retribution the rest of the way, but by that time the Rangers were a decimated and demoralized squad a week away from the end of the season.)

The Rangers’ inability to be competitive against the Islanders throughout the season, 2-5-1 while shut out four times and dominated physically, set off alarm bells throughout the organization. The Islanders, and specifically the Identity Line consisting of Martin, Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas, were the bullies on the beach kicking sand in the Rangers’ collective faces.

So while Wilson’s act became the stuff of folklore and has been credited as the impetus for the organization’s swerve to bulk up and become a tougher team against which to play, more of it was the Identity Line exposing the Rangers’ identity as a white-gloves team that could be trifled with.

And now, just over a month into the new season, the Rangers got the Islanders on Thanksgiving Eve for the first time under their own new administration with Chris Drury at the top as president and GM and Gerard Gallant behind the bench in place of David Quinn. They got the Islanders for the first time in the new place at Belmont.

They got the Islanders while the Blueshirts were riding high at 11-4-3 and the home team was suffering at 5-8-2 at the bottom of the division; losers of six straight in regulation while outscored by an aggregate 27-6; and with seven players including Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara on the COVID-restricted list and another two rather important players in Ryan Pulock and Brock Nelson on injured reserve.

Cal Clutterbuck #15 of the New York Islanders checks Dryden Hunt #29 of the New York Rangers
Physical wins by Cal Clutterbuck and the Islanders pushed the Rangers to make some big offseason changes.
Getty Images

If the NHL were concerned with competitive integrity, this match would not have been played. But that has never been particularly high on the league’s list of priorities, so the game went on, just as games went on last year for Philadelphia when the Flyers had six regulars on the COVID list.

But if this represented an unfortunate scenario for the Islanders, this just as surely represented an opportunity for the Rangers to step on their opponents’ figurative collective necks while they were down. This represented an opportunity for the Blueshirts to reveal their new identity even while the Islanders’ Identity Line was still intact.

The Rangers didn’t respond physically when P.K. Subban took out Sammy Blais for the season at the Garden on Nov. 14. Ryan Reaves provided a rational explanation for that when queried on it a couple of days later.

But though the responsibility does not rest exclusively with No. 75, the Blueshirts better have been on high alert on the Island with Martin and Clutterbuck, players who have historically wreaked havoc on the Blueshirts, on the prowl.

This wouldn’t be about payback. This would be about paying it forward.

Last year, the Islanders smothered Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, denying the Rangers’ signature forwards time and space. Panarin recorded four points (2-2) in the eight-game season series after getting eight points (3-5) in three games against the Islanders a season earlier. Zibanejad checked in with three points (1-2) in eight games after registering five points (2-3) in four game in 2019-20.

This game represented an opportunity for Nos. 10 and 93 to reestablish themselves and against a team without the Pelech-Pulock defense pair that dominated the competition. This game represented an opportunity for the Rangers to strut their new stuff against the team that broke them a year ago.