Big Eastern Conference battle on Wednesday night as the New York Islanders host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Long Island. Yep, the Isles are playing at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday meaning that it’ll be an even better environment for a big game than the horrible-for-hockey Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Maple Leafs (23 points) are three points back of the Atlantic Division leading Boston Bruins but just a point ahead of the Florida Panthers and Montreal Canadiens. The Islanders are trying to run down the Washington Capitals who have been on a tear of late. New York is 9-0-1 in their last 10 games and yet the Capitals are still 5 points ahead in the Metropolitan Division going 8-0-2 in their last 10 games. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers have very quietly been on a nice run of their own winning 4 straight and 7 of 10 going 7-2-1 and are now just 3 points back of the Islanders.
The obvious storyline to this game is the return of John Tavares to his old team. Expectations when he left via free agency to sign with Toronto were that the Islanders would go into the toilet. After all, they missed the playoffs by 17 points in their final season with Tavares. It didn’t quite work out that way and the Islanders began to retool as a nasty defensive team under new GM Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz. Last year, the Islanders won 48 games and put up 103 points–the most wins and points since the great Al Arbour coached teams that won four straight Stanley Cups. The Islanders fans still don’t like Tavares and boo him mercilessly anytime he steps on the ice in a Leafs’ sweater but the depth of the hatred isn’t the same now that their team is playing very well without him.
The Leafs will be without Mitch Marner for at least a month and that’s a big loss. Marner is the second leading scorer on the team and leads the Leafs in assists with 14. That makes Toronto’s task of facing the league’s toughest team defense all the more challenging. The Islanders allow just 2.19 goals per game and is significantly better in that department than Toronto–the Leafs rank #20 in team defense giving up 3.16 goals per contest. Toronto does have the more potent offense but not by much. The Leafs are #11 in goals scored per game with 3.32 while the Islanders are #15 putting up 3 per contest.
Just don’t see a good reason to get in front of the Islanders’ freight train at this juncture. Toronto has 4 wins in their last 10 games while the Islanders haven’t lost in regulation since October 11 and have lost only one game of any type since then. The Islanders are 8-2-1 at home while the Leafs are just 3-4-0 on the road. The Islanders took 2 of 3 from Toronto last year and they sure look like the better team right now.