Islanders dominate Rangers to take all-NY season opener

Barzal Pulock Islanders
New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal (13) celebrates with defenseman Ryan Pulock (6) after scoring a goal against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Bruce Bennett/Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

If there was any thought that complacency set in after the Islanders’ run to the Eastern Conference Final last season, it was squashed immediately.

The Islanders made easy work of the crosstown-rival Rangers to open up the 2021 NHL season on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, taking the first of two-straight meetings 4-0. 

Anders Lee scored two goals — despite the NHL’s best efforts to award the second to Jordan Eberle —  to pace the Islanders while the defense remained resolute, helping goaltender Semyon Varlamov pitch a shutout by turning away all 24 shots he faced. He became just the second Islanders in franchise history, joining Chico Resch in 1976, to post a shutout on opening night.

“I thought we had a really good game today overall,” Varlamov said. “Overall, I’m pretty happy with what we’ve done today.”

They popped three goals past the highly-touted Igor Shesterkin in the first period to spark the comprehensive victory, nabbing two within the opening five minutes.

Brock Nelson cashed in on the team’s first power-play opportunity of the season when he banged home a rebound 2:33 into the game, providing a good start to a special-teams unit that struggled so mightily last season.

“I thought we did a great job of practicing a lot in training camp,” Nick Leddy, who had two assists on the night including one on Nelson’s goal, said of the power play. “It’s always good to get some momentum on the power play. With that, it creates team momentum.”

Just 1:20 later, Lee was gifted an odd-man rush opportunity after he took a high stick to the mouth, forcing him to get up slow and hang by the Rangers’ blue line. A quick Islanders clear found Lee 2-on-1 with Eberle. Rather than pass it, the captain slotted a wrister under the arm of Shesterkin.

“I was a little upset,” Lee said of the start of that play. “I took one to the teeth and was making my way back… lucked out a little bit there.”

Mathew Barzal, fresh off signing a three-year contract, provided the first frames of what will surely be a sizable highlight reel 10 minutes later, undressing Rangers defenseman Anthony DeAngelo with a deke before roofing a wrister.

“You just want to come out feeling good,” Barzal said. “Just in general, the Islanders, Ranger rivalry, both guys are excited to play in it… it’s just a good rivalry.”

While the Islanders struggled to find their juice in the second period, a vital penalty kill of a Barzal high-stick got the wheels moving in the second half of the frame.

Less than two minutes later, the young Kieffer Bellows — who won a spot on the Islanders’ third line out of camp — drew a hook from the No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 draft, Alexis Lafreniere, after batting a bouncing puck down nicely in his path in the Rangers’ zone to help put the Islanders out of sight. On the man advantage, Lee picked up his second, tipping in a pinpoint pass after muscling his way past Jacob Trouba to the front of the net from Eberle with 5:16 remaining.

For Lee, it was his 26th career game scoring two goals as a pro, but a professional hat trick remains elusive. 

“We just wanted to start on the right foot and get to our game early and find that momentum by playing the way we play,” he said. “It was a result of a good camp and being ready for tonight.”

For the Islanders, it was their largest margin of victory in a season-opener ever. Though they aren’t taking too much stock in it. 

“It’s no surprise at all,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “There’s no statement game for us in the first game of the season against a rival. We know how important points are in a short season so we wanted to come out and play well.”