It's the final meeting of the year with the Sabres, but this time it won't be Martin Biron in goal for the face-your-old-employer treatment. Instead, we
just might will see Rick DiPietro for a battle of U.S. goalies. [Update: Per Strang, DP's definitely starting tonight.]
I could qualify that first statement: These teams could meet again if the Isles get a rental (ha) this year, make a playoff push, and garner a best-of-seven with Buffalo like it's 2007. Not bloody likely.
Reminder: Before the game at 3:30 EST (and archived after that), I'll be guest co-host of Hockey Night on Long Island with Steve on BlogTalkRadio. It's a shorter, 30-minute gameday set. The link and audio player should appear below. While I'm tooting my own horn, if you only check this site on gamedays, you might have missed two prospect interviews this week: One with 2009 Islanders draft pick Anders Lee, and one with 2008 pick Travis Harmonic.
As for the game, we have all the ingredients for a let down, or at least a slow start: Islanders on a hot streak, coming off a 6-0 rout of a traditional league power, with a four-day break between games. They did get to practice the last two days and work on some things -- verbal communication was one theme -- so hopefully they come out ready to perform on a Saturday night at home.
The win over the Wings was stunning not just in result but in its letter-perfect execution from the opening minute. We may not see another spotless effort like that all season, but it sure doesn't hurt to try.
In the previous meetings, the Islanders' lone win came in what will probably go down as Martin Biron's high point as an Islander: A 5-0 shutout win at home, back when the #1 role was still anyone's job. Sandwiched around that victory were two regulation losses: an off night for Dwayne Roloson (again, while the goalie rotation was still in effect) and a more typical Biron experience on Long Island: Three goals against, zero goals in support.
The Islanders since then have been up and down, while Buffalo has maintained a Ryan Miller-led state of excellence: They have the fewest regulation losses in the league (11), they have the fewest goals against outside of New Jersey, and they sit just two points out of the Eastern Conference lead. Look out.
As hot as the Isles have been in their last 10 (7-2-1), it doesn't even match the Sabres (7-1-2).
Tale of Two 'Young' Coaches?
Lindy Ruff's final season as an NHL player was also Scott Gordon's final NHL season. Difference is, Gordon had 23 NHL games, while Ruff had 691 spread over that and 11 prior seasons. But they're only three years apart in age. I can't tell you how surreal it is for me to remember Ruff as a player, then remember him as a "young" coach former Isles exec Darcy Regier took a chance on, and now to see him as by far the longest tenured coach in the league.
Garth Snow hired Gordon -- the first coach Snow was free to pick -- in part with the Regier-Ruff relationship in mind. Over the years, Ruff has gone from relying on Dominik Hasek, to relying on a low-payroll grinding squad, to the brief high-flying years that earned Chris Drury and Danny Briere stupid contracts as UFAs, now back to riding a league-dominant goaltender in Miller. Ruff's had some nice tools, but he's also had plenty of challenges; Regier has always had his back, but one key is that Ruff has always evolved and leveraged his strengths to make him someone worth a GM's backing.
Assuming Ruff sticks around a while longer (and there were rumblings for change last summer, but this season is either a testament to patience or a demonstration of how outstanding goaltending makes anyone a genius), future Gordon-Ruff matchups should be fun to watch. Generally, I hope Snow's wish of a fruitful Regier-Ruff type of run with Gordon comes true, but of course I hope it's sustainable for the right reasons (i.e. progress, not loyalty). Some will cite Buffalo's lack of Cups as a counterargument. I would cite 22 other teams' lack of Cups during Ruff's tenure as a defense.
With the help of Miller (.905 save% while shorthanded), Ruff has the Sabres killing off 86% of opposition powerplays -- a full 10 points better than the Isles PK unit. In the last 10 games, the Islanders have allowed 5 goals on 31 PK attempts, though three of those were in Phoenix. On the powerplay, the Sabres are at 17.9% while the Islanders perform at 16.3%.
I'd say the best bet is to stay out of the box, keep it a low-penalty game. But of course the Islanders are still in the bottom four of the league in 5-on-5 scoring ratio (0.83 GF/GA), so more than anything, the key is as in most wins this year: Be opportunistic.
And if Rick DiPietro gets his start tonight, for heaven's sake help him out for a full 60 minutes. His effort in Dallas showed rust and flaws, but the players in front of him didn't play a full 60 as if they knew he needed their help.
Prediction: If Roloson, then a home win. If DiPietro, a loss and more fodder to toss about.