Islanders Host Blackhawks Looking to Snap Skid

The Islanders will host the Chicago Blackhawks Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum as they will look to snap their three-game losing streak. It will be a daunting task for the Isles against the Central Division-leading Blackhawks who bring a 20-8-1 record into tonight's matchup.

The Isles will be glad to be back at the friendly confines of the Coliseum after losing at Minnesota and at St. Louis earlier this week.  The Islanders were in good shape heading into the third in both games before getting run out of the building.  Over the team's last three games, the Isles have been outscored 11-1 in the final frame.  Obviously it's not a recipe for winning hockey as the team has matched its longest losing streak of the season over the past week.

The Islanders are forced to do battle against the high-powered Hawks without two of their top defensemen, Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk.  Both have been skating with the team, but haven't recovered enough from their various ailments to play tonight.  The good news is that they should both be back in the lineup before long.

Tonight should be special for ex-Hawk Nick Leddy as he plays his first game with the Islanders against his former team.  Leddy was acquired by the Islanders a week before the season began and has been the team's most consistent defender.  He has five goals and nine assists for the club, is a plus seven playing heavy minutes against the opposition's top line, and eats up over 20 minutes a night playing in all situations.  There's a lot you can get on Garth Snow for, but his acquisition of Leddy for nothing of importance was arguably his best move as general manager.

Of course Leddy and the rest of the Islanders defense will have their hands full trying to contain Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and the rest of the Hawks.  They are averaging 3.00 goals a game and possess the puck about as well as anyone in the game and give the best of teams fits.  It will certainly be a stiff test for the Islanders and a defense that has allowed 17 goals the last three games over their recent skid.

One move that should help the defense tonight is the benching of Brian Strait in favor of Griffin Reinhart.  Strait has been atrocious lately and has been on the ice for 12 of the last 17 goals against (he was in the penalty box for another).  Strait has made bad decisions with the puck and is consistently out-muscled along the boards and in front of his net.  There's no question he's trying his best out there, but there is a reason he isn't among the top-six when the unit is healthy. 

Reinhart has improved steadily since his initial three-game tryout earlier this season.  He still looks a step slow in his own end and no doubt his skating needs significant work, but it's apparent most Islander fans would rather live with a rookie's mistakes over those from a veteran in Strait.  And with good reason.

Of course with all the focus on the defense, it'd be a huge boost if the forwards could sustain consistent pressure tonight against a quality defensive unit.  The Blackhawks are only allowing 1.97 goals a game, second fewest in the league.  Despite the loss of Leddy, they still sport two of the game's best on the blue line in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.  They have held up just fine in front of rookie goaltender Scott Darling, expected to make his seventh career start tonight.  The team hasn't missed a beat since starter Corey Crawford went down with injury as Darling has won five of his first six starts and posted a .939 save percentage along the way.

And taking aim at Darling will be an Islander offense that is fourth best in the league.  Despite their struggles, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo still lead the team with 26 points in 29 games. Tavares looked more dangerous with the puck than he has in a few weeks Thursday night against the Blues.  With the Islanders' injuries on defense, the team could use a big performance from the top line.  While Nikolai Kulemin has seen the bulk of the time on the wing with Tavares and Okposo, it should be a matter of time before a move is made if the two continue to struggle. 

Josh Bailey will also be back in the lineup tonight for Eric Boulton.  Expect Bailey on the second line with Ryan Strome drawing the short stick and centering the fourth line with Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin on the wings.  Yes, it doesn't make sense to me either.

Tonight will also be a challenge for the Islanders' special teams.  The power play will have its hands full against a Blackhawks team that is the best penalty kill unit in the league.  And when you're the worst penalty kill in the league like the Islanders are, every team's power play is going to cause problems.  The penalty kill has been a real sore spot on the season so far, and even when the team is winning, the penalty kill generally struggles.  Of course when you are utilizing a penalty kill scheme that no one else in the league has and allow the defensemen to fire the puck at will, you are going to struggle.  Hopefully someone will get to the coaching staff and let them know whatever they are doing isn't working.

While the penalty kill struggles, the Islanders will need a big effort tonight from Jaroslav Halak in net.  After winning 11 consecutive starts, Halak has dropped his last two. While he hasn't been helped by the team in front of him, he's allowed a few goals that no doubt he'd want back.  Tonight in front of a sellout crowd, expect Halak to bounce back and give his team a chance to win.

After three straight losses, things are understandably tense for a fanbase that approaches winning like a dog with a shock-collar approaches a fence.  However we shouldn't lose sight that this team is still 19-10-0 and sitting in second place in the Metropolitan Division.  No one should have expected them to continue winning at an .867 clip as they were when they went on a 13-2-0 stretch.  Tonight is a big game though because the team needs to put forth a complete 60-minute effort. Yes, they are short-handed on defense with injuries, but that just means everyone else needs to step up their game to compensate.  Fans and media around the league are waiting for the Islanders to falter...hopefully tonight the team can show them that this isn't your usual Islander team.

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and be sure ot follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis