MAPLE LEAFS (32-22-6) at ISLANDERS (22-30-8)
TV: SNET-O, MSG PLUS
Last 10: Toronto 7-2-1; New York 3-6-1
Season series: This is the final game between the teams this season. The teams split the first two games at Air Canada Centre, with the Maple Leafs claiming a 5-2 win on Nov. 19 and the Islanders responding with a 5-3 triumph on Jan. 7.
Big story: The Islanders, who have dropped six straight at home, are in action for the first time since losing leading scorer John Tavares for the season due to a knee injury sustained while representing Canada in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The Maple Leafs hope to take advantage of the home-weary Islanders (8-14-8 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum) as they eye a Stanley Cup Playoffs berth for the second consecutive season.
Maple Leafs: It's been a roller-coaster ride for Toronto in 2013-14. The Maple Leafs, who allow 36.2 shots per game (most in NHL), have had injuries decimate their lineup, a goalie competition between Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer dominate the headlines, and HBO's "24/7" cameras capture the drama leading up to the team's 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic victory.
Now, with 22 games remaining, the Maple Leafs find themselves within striking distance of the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Most importantly, their lineup is getting back to full strength. Center Dave Bolland is nearing a return and the team's Olympians, Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Nikolai Kulemin, are healthy and ready for the stretch run. Coach Randy Carlyle has done his best to keep the team well-conditioned since practices resumed last week.
"What we've tried to do is simulate a little bit of a mini-training camp here and try to get our players back in top form that we can hit the ice playing the way we left the ice," Carlyle told The Canadian Press.
Islanders: To say losing Tavares was a worst-case scenario for the Islanders is an understatement. A team that already lacked scoring depth now must move on without one of the League's top playmakers. In terms of most games with at least one point this season, Tavares (43) trails only Sidney Crosby (45) for the NHL lead. His absence will make matters more difficult for a team that stands 14th in the Eastern Conference.
New York also lost its second-line center Frans Nielsen to injury in the final game prior to the Olympic break and faces decisions regarding Thomas Vanek and Andrew MacDonald as the March 5 NHL Trade Deadline nears. The team will lean heavily on breakout star Kyle Okposo and rookie Brock Nelson to carry the offense the rest of the way. The Islanders have also recalled a trio of prospects, Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Mike Halmo, from Bridgeport of the American Hockey League for reinforcement.
"What we have right now is still the same system of how we play," coach Jack Capuano told Newsday. "We had a tough enough time scoring goals before the break. Brock's been here, though. He's playing well. So he deserves an opportunity with one of the top lines, for sure."
Who's hot: Kessel leads the NHL with 28 points since Jan. 1. While playing for the United States in the Olympics, Kessel registered eight in six games, tied for the most in the tournament. … Islanders forward Michael Grabner finished tied for the Olympic lead with five goals in four games while representing Austria in Sochi.
Injury report: Bolland, who hasn't played since Nov. 2 due to an ankle injury, is traveling with the team to Long Island. … Tavares (knee) will not need surgery and is expected to need 8-12 weeks of rehabilitation. Nielsen (broken hand) is also on injured reserve. Forward Matt Martin (lower body) is out Thursday but could return over the weekend.
Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen
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