Islanders, Rangers seeking stability

On the verge of imploding or the verge of the playoffs? When it comes to the Islanders and Rangers it's difficult to tell.

Updated: December 18, 2003, 3:58 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

It might as well be called the Flux Bowl.

As in a state of flux.

As in two New York-area NHL teams seemingly one step away from implosion at any given moment facing off with much more at stake than the two albeit crucial points in the standings.

Garth Snow
Garth Snow's play has stabilized the Islanders.
The New York Islanders, riding a wave of rejuvenation having garnered nine points in their past five games (4-0-0-1) after enduring a seven-game losing streak that very nearly tore the team apart, visit the equally volatile New York Rangers tonight tied in the NHL standings with 29 points.

If the playoffs were to start today neither team would qualify for the postseason.

But with 50-some games left in the NHL schedule, for teams like the Rangers and Islanders, it's about finding the seeds of optimism, planting them and hoping they grow on the grim landscape that has marked their respective seasons thus far.

While the Islanders are coming off an emotional, not to mention highly implausible, 5-4 victory over New Jersey, the Rangers have used a rare four-day layoff to try and implement a secondary checking system while keeping the media hounds at bay. (One New York columnist suggested coach and GM Glen Sather had to use this down time to save the Rangers' season.)

Strangely, it was a 4-2 loss against the Rangers on home ice two weeks ago that Islanders coach Steve Stirling points to as the catalyst to turning things around for his team, at least in the short term. Since, the Islanders have not lost in regulation time, while the Rangers have lost three of four.

"It was a challenge. It was an unbelievable challenge," Stirling said of the team's recent seven-game losing streak that negated a strong 7-3-2-0 start to the season.

Both the Rangers and Islanders were picked by many pundits to make the playoffs.

Having driven out former coach Peter Laviolette after two straight playoff appearances, Islanders players, including the puzzling Alexei Yashin, spoke lovingly of their rookie coach and the trap system Stirling implemented in preseason. But rumblings emanated from the front office suggesting season ticket sales had not met expectations and that payroll was going to have to be dumped.

Forward Jason Weimer was waived amid suggestions there were personality conflicts in the dressing room, a move that coincided with a seven-game skid that included defeats at the hands of weaker teams -- Carolina, Columbus, Washington and finally the hated Rangers. Captain Michael Peca struggled to contribute offensively (before registering a goal and an assist against Atlanta last Saturday, he had one goal in 22 games) and there were renewed questions about his leadership.

General Manager Mike Milbury, never one to soft-shoe around sensitive issues, called his troops out, referring to All-Star defensemen as "chumps" and working his way through the lineup with similarly colorful descriptors. There were suggestions the team's top players weren't prepared to sacrifice at the level less skilled players were. Trade rumors rippled over the team on an almost daily basis.

Stirling said the talk of trades died down more quickly in the dressing room than in the press, "but by then we were in a funk."

Everything that could go wrong did, from giving up early goals to goaltending lapses to defensive miscues from a veteran blue line corps that, on paper, is among the best in the league. During the crisis, Stirling conducted a series of one-on-one interviews and some smaller group sessions.

"Everything was on the table," he said.

And slowly, a period at a time it seemed, the Islanders began to heal, stringing together victories over Chicago, Tampa Bay and Atlanta mixed in with an overtime loss to New Jersey.

"It's been kind of fun, actually. I think that was one thing that was kind of missing," said Dave Scatchard, who missed seven weeks to injury and whose return coincided with the Islanders' recent upswing.

The rugged forward downplays the issues of rifts and cliques in the dressing room. "I don't think we had any real problems before," Scatchard said, adding that players were simply frustrated with losing. "I like to see that," he added. If they didn't care, "then that would be a different issue."

Scatchard does talk in issues of trust, from player to player, line to line. When one group of players gets off the ice, they need to believe the next group will work as hard and be just as effective, if not more so.

"That's what all the best teams do," he said. "That's what we need. We're still working on it but it's getting better."

Garth Snow, expected to play Crash Davis to Rick DiPietro's Nuke Laloosh, has anchored the team's turnaround by providing consistent goaltending, which has increased the confidence level throughout the lineup.

"He's been taking the ball and running with it," Stirling said.

"Our defense has picked it up at both ends of the ice. That helped us immeasurably. It made life a lot easier for the forwards."

Tuesday night the Islanders, who were winless in seven straight games against New Jersey, overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat the Devils 5-4. Kenny Jonsson scored his first goal of the season and collected his first multipoint game since the second game of the year. Oleg Kvasha, whose name most often appears in print next to the modifiers enigmatic or underachieving, leveled the Devils' Jiri Bicek. Snow was often sensational, at one point flashing his catching mitt (with the puck inside) in the faces of frustrated Devils, a la Patrick Roy. Yashin called it the most important victory of the season.

The sudden turnaround has so soothed Milbury that he has reportedly agreed to hold off on any deals through the holiday roster freeze that begins Friday.

Across the way in Gotham, the Rangers can only hope for such a epiphany. Already riding a six-year playoff drought, the Rangers continue to be the poster boys for the sins of excess. In spite of the NHL's most bloated payroll, the Rangers have failed to win more than two games in a row this season as they hover just below the .500 mark.

Sather continues to get hammered in the hockey media for both his off-ice moves and his inability to prod consistent productivity from his high-priced, talented lineup. Eric Lindros has been bounced from line to line, his ice time fluctuating as dramatically as his production. Bobby Holik has enjoyed spasms of productive play but still seems lost on Broadway. Issues remain over the role of 42-year-old captain Mark Messier who is fourth on team scoring with 15 points.

Among the only bright spots of late has been the play of Jussi Markkanen who looked early on to be a third wheel behind starter Mike Dunham and goalie-of-the-future Dan Blackburn. But Blackburn has been out all season with a shoulder injury and Dunham has been plagued by injury and inconsistent play, losing five of his last six starts. Markkanen, obtained from Edmonton during the offseason, has managed to string together four straight wins and is 4-0-1 in his last six starts with a 1.68 GAA during that period.

"I guess it has gone pretty much the way I hope," the native of Imatra, Finland, said. "Of course when the team is not winning enough, you feel you should do better."

Although his numbers suggest he will be more than just a backup as the season progresses, Markkanen insists the Rangers are a bonafide playoff team.

"I really think when you look at our game in October and our game now," he said, "we're playing way better."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.