Tonight the Chicago Blackhawks, the class of the Central Division but on some tougher times lately, host the New York Islanders, leaders of the Metropolitan Division for much of the winter who now likewise trail first by five points.
The Isles have left their number one goalie and their two best puck-moving defensemen behind. The Hawks are without Patrick Kane, their leading scorer whenever healthy. They also looked like they might scratch Kris Versteeg, who has been struggling, but instead they'll scratch noted criminal Daniel Carcillo.
Injury has taken Kane out of the lineup -- probably for good in 2014-15 -- while injuries of a less serious nature put Nick Leddy, Lubomir Visnovsky and Jaroslav Halak on the shelf for the short term. (Mikhail Grabovski, still on the long road back from a concussion, is another matter.)
With Halak staying behind in New York, Kevin Poulin got the emergency recall, but Michal Neuvirth is entrusted with the Islanders net. At the opposite end, Cory Crawford starts tonight and might also start tomorrow in Madison Square Garden, where the Hawks will play the "other" New York team.
Visnovsky staying behind means Matt Donovan gets an almost unprecedented two(!) appearances in a row. Also of note, Ryan Strome slots back in to reunite the Kid Line, forcing Michael Grabner to sit again.
Coming off an 0-3 homestand, the next two weeks are suddenly very important for the Isles: After tonight, it's three more days off before a Saturday encounter in New Jersey. Then next week brings three tough Western opponents to the Coliseum in Minnesota, Anaheim and Los Angeles (followed by Detroit the next week).
Just as the injuries have mounted, the caliber of opponents has increased, including tonight.
The infrequency with which the Isles and Hawks face each other shows in their recent records when getting together: The Islanders are 8-2-2 in their last 12 games against the Blackhawks, but are 0-2-1 in their last three trips to United Center.
That's a stretch that goes back several seasons and factoids ago, with oddities like "Nino Niederreiter, Islanders goal scorer," and "Dylan Reese, 16:36 TOI" (to say nothing of "Mike Mottau, David Ullstrom, Tim Wallace in the lineup"). Also in that stretch: the Isles' 3-2 comeback win at the Coliseum in December.
Tonight it's just two good but banged up teams needing wins to advance ambitious aspirations. Anything goes. Hockey.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight right here in the terminal at O'Hare. Don't pick Visnovsky.