Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
Much to the dismay of many a Sabres' fan, the NY Islanders aren't anywhere near a bottom five spot at this point in the season, and it doesn't look like they'll even be close to bottom ten come season's end. The Islanders have been at or near the top of the Metropolitan Division the entire season and they head to Buffalo tonight sporting a 23-11-0 record.
With top-line forwards like 2009 first overall pick John Tavares and Kyle Okposo heading into their prime and a strong group of young, up-and-coming forwards hitting the ranks, the Islanders came into the season looking to take the next step in their six-year rebuild.
Isles GM Garth Snow has done a fine job bolstering his group of talented youngins and thanks to the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks he was able to take a big step forward this fall. Cap-casualties Johnny Boychuk (BOS) and Nick Leddy (CHI) were brought in at very little cost to Snow and their presence has helped stabilize a shaky blueline.
Veteran free agent goalie Jaroslav Halak was signed in the off season, a huge move in the right direction for a franchise that has been fumbling in net ever since former GM Mike Milbury decided that goalie Rick Dipietro was the second coming of Jaques Plante.
His trade with Buffalo, though, is a huge cloud hanging over the franchise right now. Snow sent a bounty to the Sabres for LW Thomas Vanek and a finish outside of the playoffs for the Islanders this season would give the Sabres a 2015 lottery pick and a shot at the top pick in the draft.
It's a lot of pressure for a the 7th youngest team in the league (according to nhlnumbers.com.) with a fifth year coach who's only winning record was in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season.
Right now things are looking pretty good on Long Island. Despite a pre-Christmas loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the Islanders are still 6-4 their last 10 games leaving them three points behind the conference leading Pittsburgh Penguins. But as the league is nearing the half-pole, it's not so much what NY is or isn't doing, it's what the other teams are doing.
In the Metropolitan division, the rival NY Rangers are starting to make a move. They sit six points behind with two games in hand on the strength of an 8-2-0 run. The Washington Capitals are in a groove as well going 7-1-2 in their last ten leaving them six points back of the Isles as well.
Thoroughbreds like Detroit and Boston, a resurgent Toronto club, and an upstart Florida Panthers team are also closing the gap in a potential wild card scenario. And as far back as Philadelphia and Columbus found themselves at one point in the season, they should not be discounted either.
Having the pack closing in around them also adds to the pressure, but the biggest hurdle Snow and his Islanders might face this season is injuries. Grabner, has missed all but five games this season while defensemen Boychuk, Lubomir Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic have missed 10 games each. Forward Josh Bailey has missed 11.
The Isles had just enough depth to counter those injuries, but something they'll be hard-pressed to overcome is an injury to Halak. The 29 yr. old veteran is 5th in the league in wins, 9th in gaa, and 15th in sv% and is a key component in Snow's 2014-15 playoff drive. He was out for the Isles 3-1 home loss to Montreal and was given another "maintenance day" by head coach Jack Capuano yesterday.
That "maintenance day" turned into an emergency call-up for Kevin Poulin who looks to be backing up back-up Chad (Ocho-tres) Johnson at Buffalo tonight.
There's an opportunity for the Sabres to turn up the heat a bit on the Islanders tonight. A regulation win would certainly wouldn't be a service to Snow.
For this season, the only team Sabres fans want to see defeated more than Toronto is the NY Islanders. A spot outside the playoffs for the Isles in the very least yields a top-14 pick in a draft that's considered very strong. And even though odds would be very long for the Sabres winning the lottery with the Islanders pick, it's still a shot.
Which is something Snow's been doing everything in his power to avoid.