It’s a battle of the two lowest scoring teams in the Eastern Conference tonight in Montreal. But Mike Boone was right. The Islanders are coming to town and, just like when Santa comes, you’d better watch out.
They may be seven points behind the Habs in the standings, but over the last 10 games, the Islanders have a better record than the Canadiens (11 points out of a possible 20 as opposed to Montreal’s 10 of 20). When these teams met last month, New York was in the midst of a cold streak. They beat the Habs on Long Island 4-3, but that was only their second victory in 12 games and they’d go on to drop their next four.
That awful stretch may have killed their playoff hopes but since then, the Islanders have gotten 10 of a possible 14 points, their only regulation loss coming on Saturday to the Penguins, a game which they led until a phantom elbowing major called on defenseman Travis Hamonic (video) while the Isles were already shorthanded turned the game in Pittsburgh’s favor as the Isles fell apart. It was their first regulation loss since Nov. 25.
During their recent good run, the defeated the Devils, Sabres, Stars and Lightning, and got two regulation ties against the Blackhawks and one against Flyers. But they have not played as well in their last two games, an OT loss to the Blackhawks and that regulation defeat at the hands of the Penguins. It’s something they’ll try to reverse at the Bell Centre tonight.
What’s been working for the Islanders? For one thing, their three-man goalie rotation is down to one. Al Montoya has played in each of the last eight games and, until the last two games in which he surrendered 10 goals, his season stats had been very strong — a 2.07 GAA and a .933 save percentage. They are a bit inflated now. Evgeni Nabokov, who had been out with a groin injury, has been reactivated and will back up tonight.
Up front, the Isles line of Matt Moulson (pictured), John Tavares and P.A. Parenteau continues to be a bonafide top NHL threesome. Moulson has eight goals and three assists in his last seven games (and he, too, has not done well in the last two, going pointless, so that was 11 points in five games), including a four-goal game against Dallas 10 days ago. Tavares leads the team with 23 points, the other two are tied for second with 22. Moulson now has 14 goals.
Some secondary scoring is emerging as well. Kyle Okposo, for example, who had been playing so poorly he was a healthy scratch the last time the Isles played the Canadiens, has four goals and three assists in the last nine games. Former first round draft choice Josh Bailey, who picked up only his third point of the season in the win over the Canadiens, has a goal and four assists in the last nine games. Rookie forward David Ullstrom, who hadn’t scored in his first seven NHL games, has two goals in his last three.
The Islanders defencemen are also chipping in, led by Mark Streit who has four points in the last four games. Streit is also leading the Isles in ice time, averaging over 24 minutes per game.
The guy to watch in terms of physical play is winger Matt Martin, who leads the team with 121 hits and 47 penalty minutes. Tavares and Marty Reasoner will likely take all the important faceoffs. Tavares wins over 53 percent of his draws, Reasoner over 52.
Most recently, the Isles power play, which was hot until a few games ago, has faltered. They had gone 6-for-18 during a six game stretch but in the last two games, they’re only 1-for-13. For the season, they are mid-pack with a 17.4 success rate. But on the road the Isles power play is stronger, clicking on 20 percent of their chances. The Habs’ strong PK will see a lot of that first line with Streit and Brian Rolston on the points in the first wave, but the second unit is uncertain after the failures of the last two games.
The Islanders penalty kill has not been one of their strengths this season. They rank 21st in the league, killing off only 80.8 percent of their times shorthanded. On the road, they’re at 79 percent, 25th in the league.
Here’s how the Islanders are likely to line up for tonight’s game:
Matt Moulson, John Tavares, P.A. Parenteau
Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo
David Ullstrom, Josh Bailey, Brian Rolston
Tim Wallace, Marty Reasoner, Matt Martin
Mark Streit, Travis Hamonic
Dylan Reese, Steve Staios
Milan Jurcina, Mike Mottau