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Islanders Gameday: First vs. First (?!) in Toronto, with contrasting styles

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Two first-place teams that don't belong there meet in Toronto tonight; isn't October hockey ever grand.

[Promo Note: I will be on Rink Side Radio at the game's conclusion to talk about what will hopefully still be a strong Islanders start. Details at From the Rink. Direct blogtalkradio link here. You'll discern I'm pre-pubescent.]

Nyi-n_medium                Tor-leftto_medium
New York Islanders (2-1-2) @ Toronto Maple Leafs (4-0)
7 p.m. EDT | [transport or something] Centere | MSG+ | WRHU 88.7

More Burkean than Bolingbrokean: Pension Plan Puppets

The Maple Leafs are 4-0, scoring four goals per game, winning more faceoffs than they're losing, and giving up an obscenely low 23.8 shots per game. Their powerplay has been poor (15%) but their penalty kill strong (93.3%).

And of course after four games, all of this is just a bit of nonsense as we try to sort out what's real and what's some such sunshine in early October.

Lineup Notes

The Leafs have a large arsenal of defensemen -- a few who are severely overpaid -- even after waiving Jeff Finger, but the latest entry is likely former Red Wing Brett Lebda, looking to debut tonight. They've been praised for their team speed thus far, and Leafs coach Ron Wilson spoke of his hope that Lebda will bring a Wing-like tendency to move the puck quickly.

In goal, J-S Giguere has received three of the four starts. At the opposite end, Dwayne Roloson famously put up 58 saves to steal an OT win last year in Toronto (Game-winner: Your hot #12 Josh Bailey). But looking at the quasi-rotation thus far, you'd expect Rick DiPietro tonight. Still, I'm sure word will filter out later this morning on the real plan. Indeed it has: Despite DiPietro's impressive breast cancer awareness pink pads, Rollie gets the nod, says Strang.

If you haven't heard, summer Atlanta arbitration reject and ex-Sabre Clarke MacArthur has five goals and became the only Leaf to score in his first four games.

Overall, with John Tavares eased back into the lineup last game, it will be interesting to see how Scott Gordon deploys him tonight (a lot of powerplay time, naturally, but in what 5-on-5 combos?. The other questions revolve around when Trent Hunter returns [edit: still out]; Chris Botta tweeted concern about Blake Comeau taking a shot off the foot, but you'd expect it would have to be broken for him to sit out amid this hot start. With the Maple Leafs employing Colton Orr and his tendency to run around for 5:00 TOI (when not getting knocked out), you could see the cause for Trevor Gillies to remain in the lineup for his own token minutes and a quarrel.

The Islanders took the season series 3-1 last year. One one hand, early in this campaign, you've got a real test for both teams. On the other, you've got two teams yet to discover their major weaknesses, nor to learn what they're truly capable of. October hockey is awesome that way.


A Tale of Two Rebuilds, and Two GMs

Brian Burke plays well among Toronto media not because he may or may not know what he's doing (that's a mere afterthought), but because his public persona is a character friendly to ink. Hence the constant flow of features on him that excuse his American origins by praising how Canadian he acts. (He lived in Minnesota, which is really close! He prefers North American let's-just-say-Canadian players!) As New York residents know all too well, a concentrated crowd of media competition creates an endless appetite for the big line and the inflated story, even on days when there isn't one.

So in Canada's version of NYC, in Canada's favorite sport, Burke fits perfectly. It's probably even better for the NHL this way.

Meanwhile on Long Island, the birthplace of sleepy suburbs outside the Big City, home of the franchise whose dynasty the NHL "history will be made" ads forgot, Garth Snow is stylistically different. He's Bolingbroke to Burke's uh, well, Burke. Close to the vest, no-nonsense in approach, saving his bluster for private action rather than public consumption, Snow plays it differently.

Snow is so careful with disclosures, always keeping his players' interests and privacy in mind first. Burke openly discusses player moves that don't happen -- how many times has he discussed a Tomas Kaberle trade? -- but goes out of his way to tell media how much he has his players' interests in mind.

Honestly, Burke's absurd bloviating has bugged me at times, but I accept his schtick as a way of keeping interest in hockey running high and heavy. Snow's careful choice of language and guardedness has bugged me at times, but I generally accept his approach as rooted in focusing on team and roster first.

I only mention any of this because each of these teams is rebuilding, coming at it with budgets at opposite ends of the NHL's $16 million payroll gap. And while each team's possession of first place in their division today is surely more cosmetic than predictive, it strikes me that somewhere in the future these teams will be in a competitive position again, perhaps even on another playoff collision course.

If that should happen, we'll see how two different personalities, with two different approaches to rebuilding (by design and by necessity), can bring their teams back to the forefront with a little thought and a little luck.

...or maybe Toronto maintains its special company with the Panthers as the only teams to miss every playoff since the lockout. You never know. Far worse things have happened.