WINNIPEG -- If the New York Islanders are not within striking distance of a playoff spot, they are at least hovering closely enough to the playoff line and making sure that meaningful games are a part of the second half of their season.
Having held a record above .500 after Feb. 1 for the first time since the 2007-08 season, the Islanders (now 23-24-8) have gone 10-7-2 since New Year's Day to creep to within eight points of the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference chase. Holding a game in hand on the Leafs, the Islanders begin a critical week tonight in Winnipeg before journeying to St. Louis for a Thursday date with the Blues. The Islanders have earned points in six of their last eight games and return to a building where they took a 3-2 shootout win against the Jets on Dec. 20.
"We have a chance to gain ground," leading scorer John Tavares said after the Islanders' morning skate at the MTS Centre.
Michael Grabner and his Islanders teammates expect a tough test against the Jets, who are engaged in their own playoff race.
"They're going to come out hard," Grabner said of the Jets. "Everybody needs the points right now."
Evgeni Nabokov, who is 7-3-0 in his past 10 games, is expected to start for the Islanders.
Here are the projected lines and pairings for the Islanders:
Matt Moulson - John Tavares - Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner - Frans Nielsen - PA Parenteau
Matt Martin - Josh Bailey - Nino Niederreiter
Jay Pandolfo - Tim Wallace - Brian Rolston
Mark Streit - Steve Staios
Mark Eaton - Milan Jurcina
Aaron Ness - Andrew MacDonald