At 29 points a piece, Friday's matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders should be anything but one-sided.
The Islanders are second in the Atlantic Division, just one point behind their Big Apple counterpart in the form of the New York Rangers, and a win could put them in first place. The Leafs are leading their division, but a rapid climb by the Senators and a steady pace by the Bruins, who will be in Air Canada Centre on Saturday, is making life on top most uncomfortable.
| Steady Leaf defenceman Bryan McCabe was once the captain of the Islanders. |
Last season the Leafs took three of the four games against the Islanders but this season they will be facing a much different, much improved New York squad. The improvement, for starters, may have come with the acquisition of Alexei Yashin from Ottawa in June.
Yashin has been superb for the Islanders with 13 goals and 10 assists. He was the hero of this week's 5-4 win over Colorado by scoring the winning goal with three minutes left in the third.
Also on fire for the Islanders, is blueliner Roman Hamrlik. With 14 assists and 16 points, Hamrlik ranks third and fifth respectively, in the league amongst defencemen. He has, however, been without his partner, the tenacious Radek Martinek. Martinek has been out of the game with a strained knee ligament since November 6 and it is uncertain whether he will return for this weekend's game against the Leafs.
But where the Islanders may be without their gritty defender, the Leafs are for certain without one of their most gritty offenders. Darcy Tucker will not be making the trip to Long Island due to a third degree concussion sustained in Wednesday's contest with Florida.
Taking Tucker's seat on the plane will be newly acquired Jyrki Lumme. The 35-year-old defenceman was obtained early this week from the Stars in a trade that sent Dave Manson to Dallas. Lumme had 21 assists for the Phoenix Coyotes last season where he was a teammate with another current Leaf, Travis Green.
In net, there perhaps couldn't be a better match-up: Chris Osgood with a record of 12-6-1 versus Curtis Joseph at 11-6-2. Joseph has the edge in save percentage but it will be tough to get by either one of these players at the Nassau Coliseum.
To win the Leafs will have to use their power-play advantage because there will be no hesitation on the part of the Islanders when a blue jersey is in the box. The Islanders have a 19.6 power-play percentage, ranking fourth in the league. The Leafs, on the other hand, have continued to struggle when up a man. Their power-play percentage is low at 12.2% placing 23rd in the NHL.
Much to everyone's surprise, the Islanders exploded out of the starting block and only recently have began to settle back to Earth. But that great start has positioned them well for the first trip to the playoffs since 1994. A trip to Long Island is not like it used to be and the Leafs have to be prepared for a major tussle.