Tonight’s matchup between the Leafs and the New York Islanders will be viewed by outsiders as a tilt between two of theÂ bottom-feedersÂ of the Eastern Conference, devoid of much interest or playoff relevance. Â Yet for the fans of both these teams, this game and those of the recent past have been of definite significance for the futures of these franchises. Â The Islanders have been on an offensive surge, surprising opponents with their speed and tenacity in an attempt to somewhat salvage an otherwise dismal season. Â This has given the New York faithful reason to eb confident in the offense of their young core going forward, lead by the likes of John Tavares and Michael Grabner. Â While the defense and goaltending are still a work in progress, hope and potential lies in the likes of Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, and recently acquired Al Montoya. Â Montoya, who has yet to lose in his career with the Islanders, will be in net against a Toronto team that is heading in a similar direction (up!) from both the long and short-term perspective.
The Matchup Stats
The recent success by the Islanders has been of great help to playoff aspirations in this city, as they have handily defeated a number of Toronto’s competitors for those final two playoff positions. Â This has been spearheaded by an absolutely prolific scoring run by Calder-candidate Michael Grabner. Â The Vancouver/Florida castoff has been allowed to spin his wheels on Long Island, and has just recently left a stretch of hot play that saw him score ten times in just six games. Â The 23-year old Austrian uses said wheels to blow past defenders, and is especially dangerous when shorthanded for this reason. Â Teams that face New York have also had to deal with the duo of John Tavares and Matt Moulson. Â Tavares is emerging as a world-class talent and is nicely complemented by the speedy Moulson, who wrapped up a hat trick last night against the Panthers with an empty net marker.
James Reimer, who is 2-0-1 in his last three starts with a sizzling 0.944 SV%, will be looking for his second career win over the Islanders. Â His job should be made a bit easier by the Leafs reinsertion of Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong into the lineup, with Crabb sitting and Hanson returning to the Marlies in turn. Â Brown and Armstrong, a newly minted assistant captain, will increase the grit, board presence, and overall energy of the team. Â The two wingers lead by example at both ends of the ice, being just as eager to hit as they are to lay down and block a shot. Â This enthusiasm appears to be contagious on a young Toronto team that feeds off of these emotions. Â The intensity and attentiveness of these players respond to gutsy performances by their own. Â Some of the few players that seemed emotionally aloof, such as Kaberle and Verseteeg, have been (coincidentally, or not?) shipped out in the past weeks. Â This bodes well for a franchise that can use any sort of positive momentum to barrel forward along their chosen path.
It would be all too easy to be lulled into a false sense of confidence against the Islanders as they enter the Air Canada Centre on the second half of a back-to-back. Â The Leafs should anticipate an up-tempo game and look to aggressively contain the speed of their opponents, who have been extremely dangerous offensively in recent weeks. Â This Toronto squad should be confident in their ability to score goals against a team that sits 27th in goals against per game, especially with Phil Kessel’s switch in the “on” position. Â However, if I were a MSM spin doctor, I would take this opportunity to ominously warn you that the Leafs were just shutout by the Senators, intimating that we could be in for more frustration tonight. Â Thankfully, us “independent thinkers” would probably assess the roadblock thrown down by Craig Anderson as a game that Toronto dominated offensively. Â One would think that similar effort and perseverance will yield results on this Tuesday night.
From Luke Schenn, who many think will be in line for the next “A”:
“The biggest thing is guys in this room are looking to be the answers themselves. Â They are not waiting for more turnover and to bring more people in to get this thing going here as an organization and start winning. Â I think all guys in this room want to be the guy. You’re going to get some outside help, as I am sure this is not going to be the team set in stone, but these guys want to be the ones to turn this around.”