Third meeting with the Leafs already? [Insert standard "boy, the schedule maker must be drunk" rant here.]
Each time these teams have met this year, it seems Toronto's flora fixation has improved its meager standings lot in life. From the sub-Carolina bottom in November, to 14th-but-right-with-the-pack two weeks ago, to 12th place today -- a point above the Islanders. That's right: Tonight, TWELFTH PLACE is on the line!
The fact that the Leafs are still this low after a recent 8-4 run is a testament to how truly awful their start was. The fact that this low is just five points out of the 8th spot in the East is a testament to how truly awful two-thirds of this conference is. While Carolina remains the standard-bearer, it seems this summer will produce bountiful lottery fruit for several of the East's patsies, which means the NHL's Eastern Hype Machine shall remain alive and well.
Will Toronto remain one of those patsies? Possibly. If they avoid it, they'll have Phil Kessel (in part) to thank -- which sort of captures the whole Kessel leap of faith in a nutshell: Buy him, and you may not suffer as badly the loss of those picks, plus in Toronto you always have the money to buy free agents and bury mistakes in the minors. Don't buy him, and those picks are likely to be all the more valuable, but then the Toronto zeitgeist has to find other targets to hype up and tear down. I mean, might Kessel's arrival spare Nazem Kadri the burden of unrealistic, accelerated expectations?
Pshh, let's not go that far. It's still Toronto.
Based on the morning skate (or lack thereof, outside of scratches/injuries), the lineup will be the same. Something has to give in this mid-December slump, but reinforcements are not on the way -- even if captain Doug Weight is hoping to charge back on a bum shoulder sometime soon.
(I must say, if this is the end for Weight, I've seen it all too many times with this league's soldiers: A respected, prolific veteran's body keeps failing him, but he keeps putting himself back together to win a few more for the team, mixing moments of reclaimed greatness with stretches of "he just doesn't have it anymore." Whether it's Mike Bossy or Brian Sutter or Wendel Clark (three favorites of mine), the end is bittersweet. In one sense, Bossy pulled it off best: Though it was heartbreaking, he ripped that bandage off decisively and didn't look back, leaving only a record that awes me to this day.)
But this slump: The Islanders survived the heaviest road schedule in the league for the first two months and looked forward to this December homecoming. But they've promptly gone 1-4 at home, the only victory an OT win over Boston that they hardly dominated. Overall they're 3-7 in December. Hey, if they screw up tonight and Saturday at the Garden, like last year they can still salvage points at the end against struggling Columbus and Philadelphia (oh, wait ... the Isles are the one team the Flyers can still beat these days. Do over.).
Special Teams. Still.
The Leafs PK hasn't necessarily tidied up (it's still a jaw-dropping 71.4%), but they've only given the opposition eight opportunities in their last four games. That's one way to avoid PP goals. Which is just as well, because the Islanders have scored once in their last 20 opportunities.
Meanwhile, the Leafs have converted one of their last 13 powerplay opportunities, so tonight is a good chance for them to improve that considering the Islanders PK (74.6% overall) has been bleeding at an unbelievable over-50% rate (10 of 19) over the last five games -- or nearly 50% (18 of 40) if you want to go back 11 games.
Beyond This Annoying Little Present Tense
Did I mention we're still in the dregs of a rebuild? Did I mention the blueline makes me cry?
Then distract yourself, won't you, with a look at two members of the future: Catch Matt Donovan and Jyri Niemi in this month's World Junior Championships, much of which will be televised on NHL Network in the States. Better yet, those two aren't even the most promising Islanders property in the tourney, as Travis "Just Get Him Here. Now." Hamonic and Calvin de Haan are also in the tourney for Team Must-Win-Or-All-National-Pride-Is-Lost (Team MWOANPIL for short.)
Something tells me those guys aren't your average Chris Campolis or Bruno Gervaiseses. Which means the future, somewhere down the line, just might entail wearing shades. [Edit: Bob reminds me not to forget the Russians, recent Sound Tiger d-man Anton Klementiev and international contract pawn Kiril Petrov.]
Tonight's Prediction: Both John Tavares and Kessel break their mini-droughts, leaving lots of tortured fans feeling warm and fuzzy and hopeful over the holidays. And isn't that what this season is about? No? Oh.
Enjoy the game tonight. I think I'm happy-houring or gift-wrapping or egg-nogging, so I don't know how much I'll catch live/in the game thread. To finish out the year in these parts, we'll continue with game previews/reports etc. and also finish up the All-Decade Team. So when family drives you nuts over the holidays and you just can't tolerate another piece of fruitcake, this place may provide some respite.