With less than a month left in the regular season, the New York Islanders are facing must-win games almost daily. A matchup with the last-place Washington Capitals is no exception.
The Islanders look to rebound from a rare regulation loss and tighten their grip on seventh place in the Eastern Conference on Saturday night when they host the struggling Capitals.
A home-and-home series against the New York Rangers provided the Islanders (33-24-10) with a chance to improve their playoff position while seriously damaging the postseason prospects of their biggest rivals.
Rick DiPietro's brilliant 56-save performance Monday at Madison Square Garden helped the Islanders come away with a point in a 2-1 shootout loss. The Isles were a few minutes away from potentially recording at least one point again Thursday at home before rugged forward Chris Simon viciously hit Rangers center Ryan Hollweg in the face with his stick with 6:31 remaining.
Simon was given a match penalty for deliberate attempt to injure and the Rangers scored the winning goal on the resulting power play.
Simon was suspended indefinitely Friday by the NHL and was summoned to a league hearing set for Saturday. Simon, who scored the Islanders' goal Thursday, could face a suspension as long as those given to Todd Bertuzzi and Marty McSorley following their violent infractions that also gave a black eye to hockey.
The Islanders have 15 regular-season games left, and might be without Simon for those and the playoffs should they qualify.
"It hurts, no question," forward Mike Sillinger said. "His presence on the ice, his toughness in the locker-room. Obviously there is nothing we can do about that. What's done is done and we move forward."
Former Capital Richard Zednik figures to take Simon's place in the lineup for this game. Zednik, who was scratched Thursday, has one assist in four games with New York since he was acquired from Washington on Feb. 26.
Thursday marked only the third time in 21 games (12-3-6) that New York lost in regulation. Despite that success, it is only one point ahead of eighth-place Carolina and three in front of the ninth-place Rangers in the East.
Overshadowed by Simon's incident was another strong performance by DiPietro, who has stopped 111 of the last 116 shots he's faced. DiPietro is 5-0-1 in his last six starts against Washington (24-32-12).
Islanders captain Alexei Yashin returned to the lineup Thursday after missing five weeks with a knee injury and was held without a point.
The Capitals lost their season-high sixth straight (0-4-2) and were shut out for the second consecutive game, 3-0 Friday by Carolina.
Washington, loser of 11 of 12, last dropped seven in a row during an eight-game skid from March 10-23.
Asked whether there's a light at the end of the tunnel, Washington coach Glen Hanlon laughed.
"It's a pretty long tunnel right now," he said. "There will be tomorrow. I'm not having a lot of fun right now. I'm trying to see it."
Brent Johnson, who stopped 42 shots Friday, is 0-5-0 with a 4.62 goals-against average lifetime against the Islanders. Backup Frederic Cassivi made 28 saves in a 3-0 loss Tuesday at Toronto in his only start of the season.
The Islanders are 2-0-1 against the Capitals this season, including a 6-2 road victory on March 3. New York has outscored Washington 17-4 during a four-game home win streak.