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New York Islanders vs. Nashville Predators Gameday: Visnovsky returns for East/West February title fight

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The Islanders face a scary Central Division opponent, but if you tuned out hockey during football season then it's not the team you think.

Perhaps the defense has improved.
Perhaps the defense has improved.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing will be determined by tonight's game, and national media would surely prefer -- aside from the easy TV ratings jokes -- that these teams not meet for anything important now, or ever. But the Nashville Predators' visit to Nassau Coliseum is the first of two meetings over the next two weeks between the NHL's two most surprisingly legit(TM) contending teams in 2014-15.

Not that either is a favorite come June, but both the Preds and Islanders have been in the league's top 5-7 in several stat categories that hint at "really good." These shotgun-wielding teams are both among the top three in shots per game, and outshoot their opponents most nights.

Oh, they also rank quite highly in those traditional categories of "standings" and "wins" nearly three-quarters of the way through the season.

They both belong in the conversation. They both have earned the spotlight, staying atop divisions that feature elite rivals. Tonight's meeting between two present and past New England Cabal Islanders coaches should be an eventful one.

Predators (39-12-6, 1st uberalles) @ Islanders (38-19-1, 1st/Metro)
7 p.m. EST |
MSG the Regular via "EXPERIMENT" | WRHU
Nassau [gloriously unsponsored] Veterans Memorial Coliseum
Perdy good guys over there:
On the Forecheck

As taken aback as many have been at the Islanders' success this year, the Predators' ascent may be more surprising. They have led the Central Division almost from day one, after finishing just four points above its basement last season. Granted, elite goalie Pekka Rinne's lengthy injury absence was a major factor last year, but few expected his return, late-summer free agent additions, and the hiring of Peter Laviolette would equal such a dramatic jump to first place in the NHL standings.

Of course, Islanders fans -- most of whom would say Laviolette was let go too soon from Long Island -- have followed his career and are familiar with this pattern: Join a team, up their tempo, intensity and offensive aggression, ride the wave that results. It was paying off on Long Island before some Leafs thugs torpedoed Michael Peca's knee and Kenny Jonsson's head. It paid off in Raleigh in the form of Doug Weight's only Stanley Cup. It paid off in Philadelphia by adding another bridesmaid Cup finals trip to Flyers' history.

Providing a foundation for it all, and making offensive hockey all the more comforting to get away with, is the play of Rinne. He is a large, agile body who makes the positional saves by blocking out the sun, as well as the absurd acrobatic saves when things break down.

Laviolette's famed intensity allegedly leads teams to eventually tire of him, though in his last stop the Flyers roster declined before any proverbial "tuning out" occurred. Right now, fact or fiction, this is the honeymoon stage in Nashville with Laviolette. They have the goalie, the balanced old and young threats, and now two more reinforcements to push as far as they ever have.

(As an aside, and another murky addition to the infinite "Roster or Coaching?" debate, it's interesting that the man Laviolette replaced, Barry Trotz, has the Capitals firing on all cylinders in Washington. If only the Isles had fired Jack Capuano and hired Laviolette or Trotz, then they would be in first place-oh-wait...)

Lineup Notes
  • Those two reinforcements, Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson, have yet to play for the Predators after being acquired from Toronto. Mostly that's due to rather Premier League-like visa/immigration issues and transit-vexking weather, though they are expected to at least be in town tonight.
  • Jaroslav Halak will start for the Isles. His last game was the crazy 6-5 loss to the Rangers.
  • Casey Cizikas remains out and is now on IR, so look for a delightful center crew of John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, Mikhail Grabovski and Brock Nelson. Yes, times four.
  • Lubomir Visnovsky is definitely back in, but as of the morning skate it was undetermined for whom. Travis Hamonic returned to the game Tuesday after taking a puck to the finger, but it was late in the third period, and functioning fingers are rather important.
  • As IPB delves into, four of tonight's combatants were USA teammates at the World Championship.
  • Local boy Anthony Bitetto will play his 6th NHL game and first at Nassau Coliseum, near where he grew up. But he was a Rangers fan, so Avery him.
FIG Picks

Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight here. Don't pick Mystery Defenseman.