Both teams were grouped together with 17 points and on the outside of the playoff bubble, Kevin Poulin was getting the first of one of his rare starts, and the Islanders were beginning a seven-game homestand that we thought would be pivotal to their season. Just 2-6-0 at home at that point, they started that homestand 0-2-1.
Then the wins came. The Isles salvaged that homestand, going 3-0-1 in the final four. They then won two of five on the road before launching this instantly legendary 11-1-2 stretch that has them on the cusp of of their first playoff spot since Rick DiPietro was a winning goaltender.
Tonight, with the Hurricanes out of the playoffs and struggling without Cam Ward, the Islanders have a chance to bring their playoff odds so close to 100% that they'd pass the Ma Bell "five nines" standard.
The Hurricanes are 3-15-2 in their last 20 and have lost nine of their last 10 home games. But for them, tonight is a chance to play spoiler and sweep the season series with the Islanders after the Islanders swept them last year.
Though there is always the chance of a hiccup, the Islanders should be past the point of a letdown during a crucial stretch like this. They've achieved some level of realization of what they need to do to keep the good times rolling, via Chip Alexander of the News & Observer:
"We're doing a good job of understanding the focus, the intensity, the work ethic and the commitment to our system each and every night, for a full 60 minutes," the Isles' John Tavares said. "We seemed not to have that too much at the beginning of the year. We seemed to play well in spurts at times but let things slip, sometimes period to period and sometimes game to game.
"But now we understand individually our roles and what everybody needs to do as a team to be successful. Once you have success like that, I think the confidence breeds throughout the locker room and there's always a belief we can win every game we play."
So tonight is an interesting test, then. Their weakness in the prior two meetings with the Hurricanes was a complete inability to handle Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jiri Tlusty. Since those previous encounters, the Islanders lines have solidified and the Frans Nielsen line with Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey has caught fire on the scoresheet and on the on-ice little things a line must do to keep an opponent at bay.
Whoever Kirk Muller tries to exploit with the Staal line, the Islanders response may determine whether we are partying later tonight.
- Evgeni Nabokov starts his 40th of the year, while Kevin Poulin handles texts tips to DiPietro on what to say during Bridgeport exit interviews.
- The defensive pairings should be the same, with the near-homonym Streit/Strait pair still together. Forwards should be the same, too, but you never know.
- Dan Ellis starts again for the Hurricanes, who should ice the same lineup from their 3-2 win in Tampa Bay.
- That lineup includes seven defensemen: Old pal Marc-Andre Bergeron, whose ice time in 11 games has ranged from 7:04 (five games ago) to 21:31 (in his first game) since joining the Canes.
As warned, it's not my music taste, but that's the beauty of what's going on and a reason we like sports: All kinds of people, all kinds of interests, crashing together as Isles fans watching one crazy run.
Go Isles, and tonight only, go Caps.
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