New York Islanders Look to #RakeTheLeafs In Toronto Tonight

Jan 24, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) handles the puck behind the net against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO, Ontario — the New York Islanders (22-16-5, 49 points) are streaking into the Air Canada Centre tonight to battle the Toronto Maple Leafs (24-14-5, 53 points) at 7:00PM EDT.

(No, not THAT kind of streaking.)

The red-hot Isles are currently riding an eight-game point streak into tonight’s contest, which has them sitting securely in 7th place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

New York is coming off a 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, which saw a great team effort during the first period give way to mostly sloppy play from the Islanders in the game’s final two frames.

Despite the lackluster effort to close out the game, the hometown crowd had the opportunity to salute their Islanders for winning the last regular-season home game of the campaign.

Isles Nation will be pulling for their boys on the road tonight, as well as for a few other teams; we’ll all undoubtedly be watching the out-of-town scoreboard with the type of interest only a playoff push can inspire.

Tonight, the Isles and their fans will be rooting for the Panthers against the rival New York Rangers – despite Florida’s apparent willingness to attempt to injure Islanders players in their game at the Coliseum; we’ll also be pulling for the Carolina Hurricanes in their game against the Winnipeg Jets.

Both the Rangers (21-17-4, 46 points) and the Jets (22-19-2, 46 points) are three points behind the Isles in the conference standings.

The Islanders almost had serious cause for concern tonight, aside from the fact that a road game against the Maple Leafs poses a real test of character. (Toronto has been one of the conference’s surprise stories this year and currently occupies the 5-seed in-conference, quite a turnaround from last season’s 13th-place finish.)

Isles winger Josh Bailey suffered a lower body injury during Tuesday’s game against the Panthers and did not return to the ice. Centerman Casey Cizikas also sustained an injury during that game, but made the trip to Toronto with Bailey and the rest of the team.

Per Arthur Staple of Newsday (here and here), both players were seen skating during the Islanders morning session today and both confirmed to the Isles beat writer that they would be in the lineup tonight.

(That sound you just heard was the collective sigh of relief from Isles fans everywhere. THIS GUY, included.)

The Islanders have been relatively lucky this season in terms of major injuries. With the exception of defenseman Brian Strait (broken ankle, out since Feb. 18), no key Isles player has missed a significant chunk of ice time.

With Bailey providing the type of secondary scoring the Isles always knew he was capable of, and Zeeker – all heart and energy – motoring around the rink tonight, the team has a much better chance of standing up to the Maple Leafs in their own building and pulling out a win.

Tonight’s game is the start of the Isles’ season-ending five-game road trip. As well as this team has played in games away from the Coliseum this year – 12-5-2 coming into tonight – there’s no guarantee that the success will continue against a physical Leafs team.

Perhaps that’s why head coach Jack Capuano has chosen to replace puck-moving defenseman Radek Martinek – he of the ageless, laser-rocket slap shot – with a bigger body in Matt Carkner.

(I’ll go out on a limb and say Toronto defenseman and captain Dion Phaneuf will stop to think, however briefly, before throwing his weight around tonight. There are repercussions to that kind of business when Carks is on the ice.)

Make no mistake, tonight is a four-point game for the Isles. The players realize that a postseason berth is more than possible; now it’s up to them to decide how far up the standings they want to move.

Think about it: the thought of “playoff seeding” in conjunction with “the New York Islanders” was only a pipe dream as recently as last year.

Any other Isles fans think they’re still dreaming?

Projected lineup:

Moulson 26 – Tavares 91 – Boyes 24

Bailey 12 – Nielsen 51 – Okposo 21

Joensuu 6 – Cizikas 53 – Martin 17

Grabner 40 – Aucoin 10 – McDonald 13

MacDonald 47 – Hamonic 3

Hickey 14 – Visnovsky 11

Streit 2 – Carkner 7

Evgeni Nabokov 20

(Kevin Poulin 60)

Keep it here at for the postgame report.

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