GAME: New York Islanders (17-15-2) at Buffalo Sabres (24-11-1).
TIME: Monday, 7 p.m. EST.
Just reaching the playoffs this season seemed to be enough of a challenge for the Buffalo Sabres. With the season nearing the halfway point, they have good reason to set much higher goals.
The surging Sabres look to complete a season sweep of the New York Islanders when the teams meet at HSBC Arena.
With 49 points in their first 36 games, it seems likely that the Sabres will make the playoffs for the first time since 2000-01. Their point total is the most by the franchise at Christmas since 1989-90 and only two points fewer than the team record set in 1974-75.
One reason for Buffalo's surprising success has been its play against the Islanders.
The Sabres have won the first three meetings this year after losing seven of the previous eight matchups, including all four in 2003-04. A victory in this contest would give Buffalo four wins against New York in a single season for the first time since going 5-0-1 in 1972-73, the Islanders' first year in the NHL.
Ryan Miller stopped 30 shots and Henrik Tallinder had a goal and an assist Friday as the Sabres rebounded for a 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning one night after their seven-game winning streak was snapped by the Florida Panthers.
Buffalo, a remarkable 16-2-1 in its last 19 games, hasn't lost two straight since a four-game skid from Nov. 2-9.
"One of our policies this year is to get right back at it, especially after our loss," said Tallinder. "We wanted to step right back at it. You don't want to lose two games in a row."
Although Miller has played very well in winning his last two starts after missing nearly two months with a broken thumb, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff may start Martin Biron.
Biron has won both starts this season against the Islanders and is 8-3-1 with a 1.95 goals-against average lifetime against them.
New York has been one of the league's most inconsistent teams, winning a season-high three straight November 12-16 and never losing more than two in a row. The Islanders have alternated wins and losses in their past eight games.
The Isles fell to 0-3 against the NHL-leading Ottawa Senators this season with a 4-2 loss on Friday.
Goaltender Rick DiPietro, a selection to the U.S. Olympic team, continued his poor play, allowing four goals on 26 shots. He has surrendered four goals or more in four of his last five starts and has a 4.54 GAA in three games this season against Buffalo.
STANDINGS: Islanders - 36 points, 3rd place, 11 PB, Atlantic Division. Sabres - 49 points, 2nd place, 2 PB, Northeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Islanders - Jason Blake and Miroslav Satan, 15 goals; Alexei Yashin and Alexei Zhitnik, 20 assists; Yashin, 33 points; Arron Asham, 68 PIM. Sabres - Ales Kotalik, 16 goals; Teppo Numminen, 21 assists; Kotalik and Tim Connolly, 26 points; Maxim Afinogenov, 40 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through Dec. 25): Islanders - Power play: 18.6 percent (41 for 220), 11th (tied) in NHL. Penalty killing: 81.3 percent (187 for 230), 22nd (tied). Sabres - Power play: 21.4 percent (45 for 210), 3rd. Penalty killing: 84.3 percent (161 for 191), 6th.
GOALTENDERS: Islanders - DiPietro (13-11-2, 0 SO, 3.33 GAA); Garth Snow (4-4-0, 3.56). Sabres - Biron (15-5-1, 3.09); Miller (8-4-0, 2.46).
SEASON SERIES: Sabres, 3-0.
LAST MEETING: Nov. 23; Sabres, 4-3 (SO). At Uniondale, N.Y., Kotalik tied the game with 2:49 in regulation before he and former Islander Connolly scored in the shootout.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Islanders - 9-8-1 on the Islanders; Sabres - 11-5-1 at home.