The New York Islanders host the traveling continental drama known as the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, trying to stay in front of a competitive division by collecting points against a series of visitors outside the playoff picture.
Leafs (23-28-4, 7th/New Atlantic) @ Islanders (35-18-1, 1st/Metro)
7 p.m. EST | MSG+ | WRHU/WRCN
Nassau [gloriously unsponsored] Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Pensive property partisans: Pension Plan Puppets
The Islanders are atop the Metro, but it's an incredibly tight bunch at the top, so this week of "weak" opponents feels like points that must be banked.
They bring with them the voracious horde of Toronto media. But far more than tonight's game -- just the latest in a meaningless string to play out the season -- the pending teardown, implosion and rebuild are the focus of that media's attention, with Brendan Shanahan reportedly seeking that familiar rebuild cycle: a barren short term in the interests of a competitive future.
One star reportedly not in that competitive future, Phil Kessel, was minus-4 in the loss to the Rangers and ended up on the fourth line at yesterday's practice. Meanwhile, David Clarkson is back in the lineup after two consecutive healthy scratches, so look for him to try to do something that says "I CARE!"
How both respond will get more headlines than whether the Leafs win or lose tonight.
The Isles will start Jaroslav Halak again, with the same defense -- Calvin de Haan is better but still held out with that skate cut to the face -- and Cal Clutterbuck back in the lineup, on the third line, with Harry Zolnierczyk returned to AHL Bridgeport. Colin McDonald remains in what was previously Clutterbuck's slot on that fourth line.
Obviously for their own aspirations, the Islanders must make sure the Leafs lose. They lost at home to the Leafs back in October. This is the fourth game in six nights, and Saturday vs. the Blue Jackets will make five in eight as a busy February marches on. Bank the points, bank them now.
The Captain and The Ol' Goalie
John Tavares on the just-retired Evgeni Nabokov, via the official site:
Certainly for me – especially on the leadership side of it – just talking to him about players and handling different things. His work ethic, his attitude every day was tremendous. His exuberance, fun and love he had for the game. You could almost pick that up yourself from the way he handled himself and how much he enjoyed being in the net. I texted him yesterday, thanks for all the confidence you gave me in practice. He was great in many ways.
There was more on Nabby in that link and from Jack Capuano in the morning scrum [mp3].
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks here. Don't pick Harry.