A quirk of this year's schedule is that the New York Islanders have reached the halfway point without once playing the Columbus Blue Jackets, a should-be division rival that was absolutely destroyed by an injury curse for the first few months of the season.
While other teams were taking advantage of the Blue Jackets' awful luck, the Isles were having to earn their way to first place without that opportunity. Now the Blue Jackets are healthy (well, healthier), playing their way back to NHL .500 -- 6-3-1 in their last 10, same as the Isles -- and attempting to mount a still unlikely charge back into playoff consideration.
Ah well, if the Isles are to continue their own great start into this spring, they can't be expecting any handouts.
Both teams are coming into this back-to-back from travels. Last night in Toronto, Columbus got an early goal, then was blitzed by the Maple Leafs for the first win under their interim head coach Peter Horachek.
The Cannon has a good temperature on how things have gone, even with an improving record:
Many of us have had our worst fears realized in the last several games, even with Columbus notching wins along the way. The "fancy stats" have been unkind to the Jackets, despite them continuing to win. And, when it's come back to earth in losses, it has come back with a mighty thud. In their last three losses (wrapped around four wins), they've been outscored 16-6, and three of the Jackets' goals have come in absolute garbage time/score effects. They led in two of those games. When it goes bad, it goes really bad.
Special teams seem to be what keeps this team afloat. The Power Play has been good all year. The PK has been streaky. When it's been good (see: December), the team has been winning. When it hasn't (see: Arizona and Toronto), they lose. Grossly.
Overall, the Jackets need to figure out how not to keep getting blitzed on the shot clock.
The Jackets have recently signed Nick Foligno and $ergei Bobrov$ky to big extensions, so they are piecing and retaining the pieces they see as their core.
But they are still without defenseman Ryan Murray and key forwards Boone Jenner and Artem Anisimov. Add those pieces back into the lineup and I think you'd have a team capable of really scaring others in the East, if not this season then in the future.
Nonetheless, the 1-2 center crew of Ryan Johansen and Brandon Dubinsky means the Isles will need attention and the ol' balanced scoring threat from all four lines. Oh, and of course, at least a par performance by special teams.
The Isles will start Chad Johnson in goal, giving Jaroslav Halak the night off for this second end of a back-to-back. As a backup to a strong starter, Johnson knows the drill. Jack Capuano described a bit of that to Mark Herrmann of Newsday (covering tonight instead of Arthur Staple):
"He knows Jaro's been playing well and you've got to go with the hot hand, but [Johnson] has been working extremely hard."
In 10 starts Johnson's been nowhere near what even a modest take on his career numbers would suggest, so hopefully tonight is the start of bringing that back to normal.
Halak, who had a gaffe last night similar to what opened the scoring in the loss to Edmonton, was philosophical, as quoted in the Post:
"Hockey is a game of mistakes. Whoever makes more mistakes will lose most of the time."
After Mikhail Grabovski left last night's game with a lower body injury, Josh Bailey will resume the spot at left wing on line one, while Cal Clutterbuck comes back in to reinstate the normal fourth line with Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin.
Herrmann reports that means Nikolay Kulemin -- who was on the fourth last night -- moves back with Brock Nelson and Michael Grabner. That means:
Meanwhile, fun stuff from last night's Skinny after John Tavares took the game back:
John Tavares is now 12-11-23 on the road; he is tied for the road lead in goals with Alex Ovechkin and is tied-5th in road points. . . The Devils have actually led more games (17) after two periods than the Isles (15) but New Jersey is 11-0-6 in those games…The Isles improve to an NHL-best 13-4-0 when allowing the first goal.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks here. Don't pick Grabovski.