It wasn’t long ago that the New York Islanders were vying for the best record in the Eastern Conference with a playoff spot seemingly a foregone conclusion.
A miserable stretch of play, however, has that postseason berth getting more tenuous by the day.
The reeling Islanders try to avoid an eighth straight home loss Sunday, while the Detroit Red Wings aim to take a step closer to their 24th consecutive playoff appearance.
After a 4-3 overtime win at Toronto on March 9, the Islanders (44-27-5) were atop the Metropolitan Division and two points behind Montreal for the top seed in the East. They’ve since gone 1-6-1 and are now tied for second in the division with a three-point lead over third-place Washington, and a seven-point cushion on ninth-place Ottawa in the conference.
One of the league’s best offensive teams for most of the season, goals have been very hard to come by lately for New York, which has totaled only 11 non-shootout goals during the 1-6-1 slide.
The Islanders went scoreless on four power-play opportunities in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Anaheim, including a failed 5 on 3 for nearly two minutes in the second period.
"You have to try to find a way to score (on the power play), especially against a team like that," coach Jack Capuano told the team’s official website. "We had enough chances to score, but it all comes back to the power play tonight."
Captain John Tavares has gone cold at the worst time, tallying just two points in the eight-game stretch. However, he’s far from the only culprit. Kyle Okposo has two points since returning from eye surgery eight games ago, and Frans Nielsen has two points in his past seven contests.
"We’re not playing as complete as we did before. We have to simplify," Tavares said. "It is hard to say why we aren’t getting results. It’s frustrating."
Michal Neuvirth dropped to 1-4-1 since joining the Islanders after Saturday’s 21-save performance. Jaroslav Halak, who is 1-3-1 despite a 1.59 goals-against average in that span, will return to the net Sunday looking to win a third consecutive start against the Red Wings.
Detroit (40-22-12) is also battling for a playoff spot, sitting third in the Atlantic Division with a two-point lead over the Capitals, who hold the first wild card.
Two straight poor games from Jimmy Howard led to coach Mike Babcock starting Petr Mrazek against Tampa Bay on Saturday, and it turned out to be the right decision. Mrazek made 23 saves to become the first goalie this season to shut out the Lightning, the league’s highest-scoring team.
"He didn’t have much work today, so that gives him an opportunity to go tomorrow," Babcock said.
Mrazek will attempt to beat the Islanders for the second time this season after turning aside 22 shots in a 4-1 win on Jan. 31.
Gustav Nyquist had a goal and an assist Saturday for his first multi-point effort since Feb. 21 and Detroit won in regulation for the first time in six games.
Second-leading scorer Pavel Datsyuk was held without a point in his return after missing five games with a lower-body injury.
The Islanders have earned at least one point in six of their last seven home games against the Red Wings, going 3-1-2 with one tie.