Two of the Eastern Conference's top teams -- and frankly, most exciting-to-watch teams -- meet tonight at Nassau Coliseum. Yes, we're talking about the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning, who each have 44 points. A win combined with a Pittsburgh Penguins regulation loss tonight would put the victor into a tie for the conference's top spot.
Both the Isles and Pens have a few games in hand on the Lightning, but we're in a shootout/OT-aided points world, so while points are the goal, they're not the precise measure of who's doing it best. Regardless, it's increasingly looking like all three are the East's teams to beat as the season approaches the halfway point, with the Atlantic making a case for the wild card as Montreal, Detroit and even Toronto have already surpassed 40 points.
Lightning (20-10-4, 1st/New Atlantic) @ Islanders (22-10, 2nd/Metro)
7 p.m. EST | MSG+2 (twice the plus!) | WRHU/WRCN
Nassau [gloriously unsponsored] Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Light-ening it up: Raw Charge
Goalies: No Backups
For the first time in his time as an Islander, Jaroslav Halak will play on back-to-back nights -- after traveling, no less. The Isles have generally adopted the conventional wisdom (and stats) that say goalies are usually weaker on back-to-back nights.
But they evidently feel it's worth it because Halak is on a roll and didn't face much work last night. Jack Capuano in the morning scrum [mp3 audio] explained their reasoning:
[He faced just] 18 shots last night, and I thought we played a pretty solid game. You know, he’s playing well right now. So we’ll go back with him.
Halak last started on back-to-back nights March 10-11, taking the loss for Washington in both games of a home-and-home with the Penguins. Of course, aggregate rules apply to the odds and life overall, and not always to specific cases: In that home-and-home, Halak stopped 32 of 34 shots in the second game after giving up three goals on 20 shots the night before.
Left unsaid in all of this is whether confidence is shaken in backup Chad Johnson, whose numbers have been ugly through most of his first nine starts.
Meanwhile, speaking of confidence in the backups: Ben Bishop is injured, so we'll get another shot at Evgeni Nabokov, right? Wrong. Nabokov played last night in New Jersey, and took the 3-2 shootout loss. Tonight the Lightning are going with hot prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won his NHL debut over the Flyers this week.
In Capuano's scrum, he was asked about the Kid Line that scored both goals last night. As has been his common refrain, Capuano said their success begins with their defensive diligence. The depth is helping as some of the other lines aren't scoring.
As for the Lightning's assortment of dangerous kids, Tyler Johnson is out tonight, but Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat are still there. And of course, though he's no longer a kid, the amazing Steven Stamkos is still just 24 years old. Goodness. He's fourth in the league this season with 19 goals.
This is the third and final meeting of the regular season for these two. Each team won at home, 5-2, with its number one goalie against the road team's backup.