Thursday, April 18, 2013
A lot on the line tonight for Isles, Leafs
By Pierre LeBrun
TORONTO -- The New York Islanders open a five-game trip here Thursday night to close out their regular season with much still at stake.
Seventh in the East to begin the day, three points ahead of the danger zone and just one point behind the Ottawa Senators in sixth, the Isles could end up anywhere from fifth to ninth in the conference depending on how they fare on this trip.
Ending the season with five away from home would be a scary task for many teams, but it just so happens that the Isles have one of the best road records in the league at 12-5-2. This is not something they're fretting about.
"It's been great for us all year," star center John Tavares said after Thursday's morning skate. "We play with a lot of calmness and confidence on the road, just composed in a lot of situations. There's a lot of swings of momentum in a game, and we seem to handle those a lot better on the road more consistently this season. We need to rely on that and keep it going."
Besides, current form should give the Isles enough confidence. They're 9-1-2 in their past 12 games, a late-season run that has buoyed their long-suffering fan base.
"It's great," Tavares said. "We're not there yet but we're getting closer to the goal that we've been trying to accomplish for a while. I think we're proving what we're capable of, but we know we still haven't accomplished anything yet."
After Toronto, the Isles jet off to Winnipeg, Carolina and Philadelphia before wrapping it up next Friday night in Buffalo.
A win in regulation Thursday would lift the Isles to two points behind the fifth-place Toronto Maple Leafs, and the players in the visitors dressing room Thursday morning were very much aware of that juicy possibility.
"We're aware of the circumstances at this time of year," Tavares said. "The teams are real tight in the standings and there's a lot of battling for positioning for the playoffs. There's a lot up for grabs for both sides tonight."
The Leafs have a shot at home ice for the first round of the playoffs, thanks to the stumbling Montreal Canadiens. Toronto -- 7-2-1 in its past 10 games -- enters Thursday four points back of the Habs.
The Leafs wrap up the regular season against their rivals at home April 27. Fourth place is very much a possibility for Toronto, and the players know it.
"Definitely," Leafs goalie James Reimer said. "Anytime you can catch the team in front of you, whether it's from eighth to seventh or from second to first, that's what you're focused on. They [the Canadiens] have had a couple of unfortunate games; that's good for us and hopefully we can catch them. If we win tonight, maybe we close the gap. We hope to keep rolling."
Thing is, the Leafs -- who can clinch a playoff spot Thursday night depending on what also happens in Winnipeg -- have to start playing better than they have over the past week. They were downright lucky to beat New Jersey on Monday, Reimer stealing them those two points after the Leafs were outshot 32-13, and they got their just rewards a night later in Washington, when the red-hot Caps drubbed Toronto 5-1.
"We need to play a better brand of hockey than we did in the last six periods," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. "It's as simple as that. Or we're not going anywhere. Our focus is getting our team back to where we're capable of playing, because the last six periods for us is not something we'd say we're proud of.
"We have a group of players that have performed fairly well for us [this season] in the situations they've been presented, and now the next one is the most important one: That's tonight against the Islanders."
The Leafs have been outshot in eight straight games, not a trend that would seem to indicate long-term success. Then again, they've been outshot in 32 games this season and sport a sparkling 19-8-5 record in those games.
"We chart where the shots are coming from," Carlyle said. "And that's the most important thing to us. Yeah, we would like to keep our shots [against] down below 30, as every team would. And we'd like to get over 30 [on the opponent]. There's areas where we can improve on, for sure."
Lineup notes: Islanders coach Jack Capuano said veteran blueliner Matt Carkner would be inserted into the lineup for Radek Martinek.
Casey Cizikas, who left the Islanders' last game with an upper-body injury, said he was ready to go for Thursday. Josh Bailey, who also appeared to be banged-up in the last game, also said he's good for Thursday.
Toronto forwards Matt Frattin and Clarke MacArthur will likely be back in the lineup after being healthy scratches Tuesday at Washington.
Carl Gunnarsson will miss his third straight game with a lower-body injury. Carlyle said the defenseman might return Saturday in Ottawa.