The New York Islanders look to increase their lead atop the Metropolitan Division, as their four-game road trip continues at 7 p.m. tonight in Sunrise, Florida.
Although the Isles playoff chances are much more secure than Florida’s, Frans Nielsen is adamant the Panthers aren’t the only team in desperation mode taking the ice on Saturday.
“We want to fight for that top spot [in the Eastern Conference] so I think there are two desperate teams playing,” Nielsen said. “Usually when teams are desperate you don’t see a lot of mistakes and see a lot of high percentage plays with both teams getting pucks deep and trying to grind the other team out.”
The Panthers are thick in the battle for the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot. Islanders’ fans can look back just a couple of years to feel familiar with the Panthers’ situation of looking for that playoff spot in the final six weeks of the season.
“They have a really good young team too and I remember the excitement knowing you had a chance, the importance of every game and how fun it was going down that stretch,” Frans Nielsen said following Friday’s practice in Sunrise. “I’m sure they have the same feeling in the room we had a couple of years ago.”
The Isles and Panthers determine their season series tonight, with the road team having won each of the previous meetings this season. The Isles pulled out a 4-3 shootout victory at BB&T Center in November, before falling to the Panthers in early February at Nassau Coliseum.
The Isles pulled off a 4-3 win over the Central Division leading Nashville Predators on Thursday thanks to Brock Nelson’s game-winning goal with 6:08 remaining. Combined with an overtime loss in Dallas, the victory in Tennessee gives the Isles points in each of the opening two games of the trip.
Casey Cizikas and Eric Boulton returned to the lineup Thursday. Cizikas centered the fourth line after missing eight games and Eric Boulton saw his first action since Dec. 11.
Another Islander, forward Matt Martin, is eligible to return to the lineup tonight after serving a one-game suspension. Martin has only played 10 seconds of this road trip after being handed a game-misconduct on his first shift in Dallas.
Florida has earned points in three of its last four games, but the Panthers were dealt a significant blow when former Isles goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya were injured on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Luongo managed to return to the game, but was ruled out for at least two contests including tonight’s game against the Isles. The Panthers also announced Montoya will be out of the lineup for two-to-four weeks. As a result, Florida called up veteran netminder Dan Ellis from the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage and Sam Brittain from the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.
Unlike the 2013 Islanders, the Panthers made a splash at the deadline by acquiring future Hall-of-Famer Jaromir Jagr from the New Jersey Devils. In three games with Florida, Jagr has recorded a goal and an assist.
Being one of the top Isles defensive forwards, Nielsen knows the challenge Jagr brings with the puck in the offensive zone.
“He’s so strong on the puck you have to stay close to him. You have to be around him to take his time away because he’s going to make some plays. He’s one of the biggest talents to ever play this game and you can see he still has it.”
The puck drops between the Islanders and Panthers from the Sunshine State at 7 p.m.