11/18/14 Pregame: Isles Look to Zap Lightning

The Islanders play host to the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday night as they look to exact revenge on the Lightning for Saturday night’s 5-2 defeat in the Sunshine State. The loss snapped the Isles’ five game win streak but they will look to start up another one at the Nassau Coliseum against a loaded Lightning team.

The Islanders have been off since that Saturday night defeat and have had two full days to stew on what went wrong. While most fans would have been satisfied with a split in Florida over the weekend, the two-game stretch represented the team’s worst stretch of play in several weeks. On the back end of back-to-backs the Isles could not sustain enough offensive pressure and appeared to be a step slow on defense throughout the game. They also weren’t helped from the beer-league quality goaltending of Chad Johnson who has struggled in three of his last four starts.

Tuesday’s game will also mark only the seventh home game of the year for the Islanders, second fewest in the league so far. Nassau Coliseum has strangely turned into a house of horrors for the Islanders in recent years as they have failed to post a winning record in “FortNeverLose” since the 2009/10 season. However early in this season the Isles have a 4-2 home record, a record they will have to maintain if they expect to be serious playoff contenders this season.

The matchup will also see the return of Jaroslav Halak in net for the Isles. Halak last played Friday night against Florida and, despite allowing two late goals to send the game into overtime, was stellar in overtime and the shootout and helped capture the two points. Halak has been rolling lately, posting a 4-1 record over his last five with two shutouts and a nifty .944 save percentage. The Isles are going to need that Halak Tuesday night against Tampa Bay.

Fortunately for the Islanders on Tuesday is that this time the Lightning will be the ones playing the second of back-to-backs. Tampa Bay stomped the Rangers 5-1 Monday night at MSG with goaltender Ben Bishop picking up the win. The Islanders will see a familiar face with Tampa Bay backup Evgeni Nabakov in between the pipes. Bishop only saw 16 shots Monday night against a lackluster offense and hardly had to exert himself, so there was some concern he may have gotten the start here as well.  However, it's only fitting for the ex-Islander Nabakov to get the start in net Tuesday and let up a couple of softies that became the norm for him last season here on the Island.  While many fans are grateful for the time he spent here, it was apparent that Nabakov's days as a starter were over.  In four games this season for Tampa he's 2-2 with a .874 save percentage.  If he doesn't turn it around soon, Nabakov may find himself out of a job.

Tampa Bay comes into town scorching hot in November with a 6-1-1 record. They are scoring 3.68 goals a game, good for tops in the league and have some guy named Steve Stamkos on their roster, who in case you haven’t heard, is pretty decent at hockey. With Nabakov in the net Tuesday night, Tampa is going to need all the goals in can get from its high-powered offense.

The good news for the Islanders on the injury front is that Cal Clutterbuck will return from injury after missing Saturday night’s tilt in Tampa (the other lines will most likely remain the same from Saturday night.) Clutterbuck’s return means Cory Conacher will end up back in the press-box. With Clutterbuck returning and Michael Grabner also close to re-joining the lineup, it appears the Conacher experience is coming to an end. For $600,000 it should come as no surprise either.

It’s also worth noting, that according to Newsday’s Arthur Staple, the Islanders were practicing with new personnel on the top power play unit. The power play, specifically the combination of John Tavares, Brock Nelson, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome and Lubomir Visnovsky, has struggled to produce, going 1 for 13 overall the last three games. At practice Monday Johnny Boychuk and Frans Nielsen replaced Visnovsky and Strome on that top unit. The top unit has lacked that heavy shot from the point without Boychuk and in a season where the coaching staff has pushed the correct buttons for the most part, it was head-scratching to remove him from the quarterback position in the first instance. However, this new power play unit should be able to get more pucks to the net, a strategy that was successful earlier in the season.

The other item to monitor is the ice time of forward Anders Lee.  Lee only played 10 minutes on Saturday night in Tampa, the second fewest of any player on the Islanders for the game and Lee's lowest total so far this season.  While Lee hasn't been scoring at the same rate fans were used to seeing in his brief stint with the club last year (only two goals on the year so far), his big body provides a significant presence in front of the net and allows a player like Strome more room to dangle in the offensive zone.

Tonight is a vital game for the Islanders as they will face the Penguins in a home-and-home later this week.  Tampa Bay is coming off an impressive victory last night and perhaps will take their foot off the pedal after the emotional return of several ex-Rangers to MSG.  The Islanders should be well rested and have no excuse not to come out tonight in front of the home-crowd with a strong performance.  Anything less than two points will be disappointing tonight.

Prediction: the Islanders were embarrassed Saturday night and no doubt want to make amends for their performance in front of the home crowd.  Expect a strong performance from the club, assisted by Nabakov's continued struggles, for a 5-3 Islanders' victory tonight.  The duo of Tavares and Okposo will have big games and combine for three of the five tallies tonight.  

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and make sure to follow @TCLIsles for the latest Islander news