Islanders look to tighten defense vs. Jets

NEW YORK — The Winnipeg Jets have a chance Saturday to achieve something the franchise has never done since it was relocated from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season. The New York Islanders will be trying to avoid completing a pre-Christmas break slide that seemed incomprehensible at the start of the month.

The host Islanders and visiting Jets will attempt to enter the Christmas break on a winning note Saturday afternoon, when they meet at Barclays Center.

Both squads were off Friday after their respective slides continued with losses Thursday night. The Islanders allowed the game-tying goal with 1:15 left in regulation before falling to the visiting Anaheim Ducks 5-4 in overtime. The Jets, playing the second game of a three-game road trip, fell to the Boston Bruins 2-1 in the shootout.

Despite losing in Boston, the Jets (20-10-6) enter Saturday with an opportunity to hit the Christmas break in first place in the Central Division. Winnipeg, which has lost six of its last 10 (4-4-2), is in a three-way tie for first with the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, both of whom play later Saturday night.

To do their part to at least enter the break with a share of the division lead, the Jets know they’ll have to continue playing solid defense, especially against the potent Islanders. Winnipeg has allowed just six goals in its last three games after giving up 23 goals in six games from Dec. 5-16.

“We’re not looking to get into a scoring race with them in this game,” Jets center Bryan Little told the team’s website following an optional practice Friday afternoon. “We want to have that same mentality as we’ve had the last two games, especially against Boston, and be patient and comfortable in that type of game.”

For better or for worse, the Islanders’ best hope lately has been to win high-scoring games. New York entered Friday with 125 goals scored and 125 goals against. The former ranks second in the NHL, behind only the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, while the latter is tied for last with the Arizona Coyotes, who have the fewest points in the circuit.

While the Islanders enter Saturday one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the race for the Eastern Conference’s second wild card, short- and long-term history suggests they will have trouble maintaining that standing with such porous defense and goaltending. Goalies Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss currently possess an .891 save percentage for New York, which began December one point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

In addition, no team has made the playoffs in a non-lockout season with a sub-.900 save percentage since the Calgary Flames (.899) and Detroit Red Wings (.894) each made the postseason out of the Western Conference in 2008-09.

Islanders head coach Doug Weight hoped some feistiness Thursday night from Halak might spark the goalies. Halak threw a couple jabs at Ducks left winger Nick Ritchie after Ritchie slammed Halak into the net in the second period.

“The big picture, the small picture, five goals and we lose, but yeah, he was fighting for space and he had some emotion today,” Weight said. “I think we take positives with any of that right now. We need to regroup (Friday) and we’ve got to get two points somehow on Saturday.”