It's March, the New York Islanders are out of the playoff race and beset by injuries, so it must be time for another interesting new face.
Tonight, the new face of Kevin Czuczman appears against the backdrop of a beloved, familiar old one: Czuczman gets his NHL debut as the Isles face the Minnesota Wild and Matt Moulson in his first game at Nassau Coliseum since being traded last fall. (Nino Niederreiter also returns to the Coliseum, but his parting was forecast much longer ago after the Isles didn't send a congratulatory text or something.)
Czuczman is fresh out of the NCAA, having signed as a free agent from Lake Superior State just a week ago. He's had under a week of practices, and he'll enter the NHL fire under the guidance of Travis Hamonic, his expected babysitter for the night.
Wild (35-23-10, 1st wild card) @ Islanders (26-34-9, 8th/Metro)
Nassau [gloriously unsponsored] Veterans Memorial Coliseum
7 p.m. EDT | MSG+2 (twice the plus!) | WRHU/WRCN
Voice in the Wilderness: Hockey Wilderness
Sad Ex-Isle Quote
Moulson, in Newsday:
"I made some of the best friends I've had in my life with that team. We were a pretty close group," Moulson told Newsday on Sunday evening, just after the Wild landed in Boston for a game Monday night with the Bruins. "To be taken away from that was tough. It was extremely tough on myself and my family, especially coming out of the blue like it did for me."
However, he sounds like he's doing just fine these days and his adjustment to his third team of the season has been a smooth one, though thus far yielding just a goal and an assist in six games.
State of the Wild
The Wild are struggling to score lately, though by scanning their shot output it seems more due to the luck of things and power play struggles than any chronic problem. They upgraded their scoring options on paper at the deadline by acquiring Moulson from Buffalo, which has the domino effect of pushing an unhappy Dany Heatley back to the fourth line and an entitled Niederreiter to a place Isles fans know well.
But they are 1-2-3 since the deadline, so there is anxiety in the air. They are 12 points out of a guaranteed playoff spot in the Central but lead the wild card race and should keep Phoenix, Dallas and Vancouver at bay behind them.
Speaking of anxiety, many here (raises hand) take joy in poking at Niederreiter, whose maturity for the job never seemed to keep pace with his physical tools while in the Islanders organization. But his role in his still-young Wild career -- a top-sixer at times, a line shuffler at others -- is reminiscent of his time with the Isles: A ceiling as a power forward scorer, but with underlying concerns that his career leaves him second choice to other prospects, and what he'll do if that puts him on a third line.
Tonight that whole context is put in one mixer as the Wild have Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle as more featured young pups, while the Islanders ice Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and (Minnesota native) Anders Lee.
Add to it Moulson's return and the other concerns the Wild have, and this becomes an interesting contest -- or at least one with some entertaining standings and spiritual stakes on the line.