Put the New York Islanders' uninspiring-but-productive first 19 games aside, and we are still left with this: Just by rankings relative to other teams, they don't look as well positioned in the Eastern Conference as they were looking around this time last year, when they put years of November curses behind by extending October to 60 days.
One of last year's contenders that has only gotten better appears to be the Montreal Canadiens. The Isles have had their troubles with the Canadiens, including a close contest earlier this month that spilled into third-period thumping. Now this weekend, after a good California trip and a convincing home win Monday (against the same Coyotes squad that won in Montreal last night), the Isles have a chance to measure themselves again: Two games, home and home, tonight and Sunday against the Hockey Club from Montreal.
Take points from this -- not just play well but lose in regulation, not now -- and they can reasonably feel like their recent uptick in play is a return to form. Come up empty and, no matter what happens afterward, it's going to feel like their case to be in the top tier in the East is already lost.
First Goals: Including last night, the Canadiens have given up the first goal in five consecutive games. In IslesTwitter land, that would mean that "the coach doesn't have his team ready to play." In the rational universe, it's probably just one of those things in a game where the most extreme gaps are around 58 to 42 percent.
The Isles have scored the first goal in four consecutive games (3-1).
Return of Price: Unfortunately for the Isles, what the Canadiens didn't have in any of those five games -- and didn't have in the previous meeting between these two teams -- is Carey Price. He returns to the lineup tonight.
His old creasemate Jaroslav Halak will be in goal again for the Isles, whose lineup remains the same as Monday.
Grabbo: That means former Canadien Mikhail Grabovski will play despite leaving Monday's game with an injury. It wasn't a head injury, according to Capuano.
Balance in the Force: Whatever their ills even while they were winning in October, the Isles have not all been firing at the same time this season, leading to shuffles of the lines and even of last year's unchangeable top two defensive pairs. Lately, it seems like the Isles top lines have stabilized. We'll see if their chemistry and Jack Capuano's patience survived the layoff.
No Semin: Alexander Semin remains in purgatory, as he was during the previous meeting. He was briefly released from the doghouse, but he's back in the [insert your metaphor here] again.
None More Black: The Isles will wear their black the-color-of-Brooklyn-except-not alternate unis, in a naked attempt to confusing visiting Habs fans into thinking they accidentally landed in Boston.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight here.