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Islanders Gameday x 2: Battle for 8th, or battle for 'The Franchise?'

There are two symbolic games for the Islanders franchise tonight, and I can't tell you with a straight face which one is more important in the big picture. One takes place in "the bigs," the real league, as the Isles visit the Lightning in a battle for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. But are we that vested in the playoff race at this early stage, during Year 2 of the rebuild?

The other takes place in Bridgeport, a mere AHL match -- but it happens to be Rick DiPietro's first competitive action in nearly a year. How much stock should we put in this single, minor-league performance? What if he does poorly? What if he does really well?

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New York Islanders (11-10-7, 8th/E) at Tampa Bay Lightning (10-9-8, 9th/E)
7:30 EST | [dying media] Forum | MSG+2, radio
Storm-chasing electric avenue freaks:
Raw Charge

The prospect of either game leaves my interest piqued -- and that's not even getting to the first NHL meeting between John Tavares and Viktor Hedman, two guys who should provide some entertaining Eastern Conference battles for years to come.

As for the here and now, the Isles are on a road trip, yes, but the Lightning were the only ones who actually had to travel last night. They just lost an absolute heartbreaker in Newark last night, giving up the winning goal in the final 40 seconds of the game after tying it up just two minutes before.

This is their first meeting of the season. The Isles were actually a healthy 3-1 against the Lightning last season, but ... remember the Lightning? They were the team that was so bad they got whichever of Hedman or Tavares we decided to leave behind.

Anyway, last year Trent Hunter was the big producer in these games, with three goals in three games. Since his father on this Islanders fathers' trip demands a goal before he'll dance -- two assists in Atlanta wouldn't do -- maybe he'll continue that success. Just 13 games into this season, he's keeping up the point-per-game pace (5-8-13).

But that's to do with the big club. Is it possible there's a more significant game happening closer to home, in Bridgeport? The AHL squad DiPietro will be backstopping did -- uh...they did not have a good night last night.

While I'll be focused on this game in Florida, I know several Isles followers will be on the scene in Bridgeport, including Islesblogger and Point Blank/AOL's Chris Botta, to see DiPietro's expected 20-30 minutes of action. Short-term, anything between a blowout to a shutout still doesn't tell us much with certainty. Long-term ... we still don't know much, but this is another big step in DiPietro's long journey back. Of course I'm hoping for the best, but I'm also relishing the fact that Dwayne Roloson is providing us some serious NHL goaltending right here, right now.

Well, whatever happens tonight in both towns, we'll have plenty to talk about afterward.

Prediction: DiPietro allows two goals, Roloson (or Biron?) allows two goals, Nifty-Niittymaki (or Smith?) allows more.