Eastern leaders collide as Lightning visit Islanders
By the time faceoff arrives Friday night, the New York Islanders will have waited nearly 10 days to play a hockey game. The Tampa Bay Lighting will have waited even longer for a rare chance at revenge.
The two division leaders in the Eastern Conference are scheduled to meet Friday night, when the Islanders return from the All-Star Break and their subsequent bye week by hosting the Lightning at Nassau Coliseum.
The Islanders have been off since Jan. 22, when they went into the break with a 3-2 shootout loss to the host Chicago Blackhawks. The visiting Lightning returned to action Wednesday, when they fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-2.
New York's loss snapped a five-game winning streak for the Islanders, who reached the All-Star Game as the hottest team in the NHL. They went 15-3-1 between Dec. 15 and the All-Star Game to surge into first place in the Metropolitan Division and turn themselves into the most surprising story of the season.
New York finished 17 points out of a playoff spot and 25 points behind the division-winning Washington Capitals last season, and that was with John Tavares, who departed in July for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Of course, this is the NHL, so the line between euphoria and disappointment is a narrow one.
Entering Thursday, the Islanders were just four points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who held down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
As a result, the Islanders know their work is only about to begin. The game against the Lightning marks the start of a season-ending stretch in which New York (29-15-5) will play 33 games in 65 days.
"We've been playing really well, but it'll be great to kind of just (say), 'OK, check the first half off, we've done our job in the first half,'" Islanders center Mathew Barzal said following the loss to the Blackhawks. "We know it's not going to get easier."
It really won't be easy Friday night against the NHL-leading Lightning, who should be particularly primed to face the Islanders.
Tampa Bay (37-11-2) is in the midst of a mini-funk by its standards. It has alternated losses with wins over the last six games and trailed 4-0 until late in the third period against the Penguins.
The Lightning's slide began with a 5-1 loss to New York at Barclays Center on Jan. 13. That defeat snapped a 20-game stretch in which Tampa Bay went a robust 18-1-1. It was also the team's second-most lopsided loss of the season, behind a 7-1 blowout absorbed against the Arizona Coyotes on Oct. 27.
"I think the biggest thing we talked about after the (Penguins) game is not letting this snowball here," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Wednesday night.
"Realize this is our one game now back from the break and there's no more excuses with that. And we've got a really tough test of a team that put a good thumping to us last time."
--Field Level Media
Updated February 1, 2019