If for some reason there were still people doubting the legitimacy of the New York Islanders’ rise to the top of the Eastern Conference, their last two games should serve to answer those remaining skeptics.
The surging Islanders have been busy making statements lately and a road game against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night gives them an opportunity for another.
Just reaching the playoffs would’ve been a good way to send out Nassau Coliseum in the Islanders’ last season there before moving to Brooklyn, but the team seems intent on doing much more.
With the midpoint of the season having just passed, the Islanders (30-13-1) find themselves in very unfamiliar territory. They lead the East by one point over Tampa Bay and their 30 wins are tied for the most in the NHL.
”We’re in first place now, but that can change real quick,” captain John Tavares said. ”All these wins are big wins, but you’ve got to go out there and continue that."
After road victories over New Jersey and Columbus on back-to-back nights, the Islanders headed to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday to face a Rangers team that had won 13 of 14. All the Islanders did in that game was post a 3-0 shutout and register 44 shots against a club that hadn’t allowed more than 38 all season.
Their latest victory was just as impressive.
Entering the third period down one against Pittsburgh on Friday, the Islanders scored four goals – three from Kyle Okposo after he tallied in the first – and rallied for a 6-3 victory. Tavares had three assists to help New York open a three-point lead over the Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division.
”To score four is pretty special,” said Okposo. ”The atmosphere – it was awesome out there. I haven’t really heard it that loud since we played these guys in the (2013) playoffs.”
The Islanders outshot an opponent for the 15th consecutive contest and lowered their league-best total to 26.8 shots allowed per game.
They’ll now try to improve to 6-1-0 on the second game of back-to-backs and avenge a 3-1 home loss to the Canadiens on Dec. 23.
Montreal (27-13-3) is in a 1-2-1 stretch after winning nine of 10 and is coming off Thursday’s 4-1 loss at Ottawa. Max Pacioretty was again a bright spot, scoring a goal in a sixth straight game with seven total in that span. He’s bidding to become the first Canadien with goals in seven consecutive contests since Denis Savard’s nine-game run from Feb. 7-March 1, 1991.
Pacioretty was held without a point in last month’s win over the Islanders, but has eight goals and three assists in his past 12 matchups.
Montreal coach Michel Therrien will want to see a more complete effort from his team after seven forwards failed to even register a shot Thursday.
”We need contributions from more than one line,” Therrien said. ”Right now, we only have contributions from one line and that’s not good enough.”
After Pacioretty, Montreal’s most effective player lately has been goaltender Carey Price, who has a 1.67 goals-against average in his last 12 starts. However, Price did not face the Senators and could sit out again with an upper-body injury. Joey MacDonald was called up from Hamilton of the AHL on Friday, likely to back up Dustin Tokarski.
Former Canadien Jaroslav Halak stopped 21 shots against the Penguins and tied Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen for second in the league with 24 wins. Chad Johnson, though, could get the start in the second half of this back-to-back.
The Canadiens have won four of five against the Islanders and are 8-1-4 in the last 13 meetings at the Bell Centre.