Islanders Visit Buffalo Looking to Get Back on Track

The New York Islanders visit the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night as the NHL resumes games after its three-day Christmas break.  The Islanders will look to improve upon their 23-11-0, good for second in the Metropolitan Division.

Their hosts tonight will be the Sabres who are 13-19-3 and sit in last place in the Atlantic Division.  Buffalo is in the midst of a major rebuild and hope to have the lottery-gods in their favor in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.

The Islanders will look to rebound from a 3-1 loss at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday night.  Chad Johnson got the start and although the defense only allowed 21 shots, Johnson could not come up with one big save and the Islanders saw their four-game winning streak snapped.

The big news for the Islanders is the placement of goaltender Jaroslav Halak on the IR, retroactive to December 20th. The goalie has been everything the Islanders could have hoped for this season and all of those in Islander-land will keep their fingers crossed that he is back shortly.  The Islanders re-called goalie Kevin Poulin on an emergency basis.

Even more surprising than the shelving of Halak is that coach Jack Capuano announced that Poulin will get the start tonight in Buffalo.  Poulin played last night for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and while he has been sharp there this season (10-6-1, .928 save percentage, 2.41 goals against average), it is curious they would go to Poulin tonight in his first start this season over backup Chad Johnson. 

Poulin has been less than impressive during his multiple stints in the NHL, so clearly the move tonight is a shot across the bow at Johnson who has been downright bad most of the season.  His .867 save percentage and 3.54 goals against average is only the tip of the iceberg with Johnson who looks shakey a majority of the time, flops around like a fish, and inspires zero confidence in the fan base.  Some may say Johnson is an older Poulin to be honest.

Fortunately for the Islanders the Sabres are last in the NHL, scoring only 1.83 goals a game.  They are led up front my Tyler Ennis (23 points), Zemgus Girgensons (18 points), Drew Stafford (17 points), and former Islander Matt Moulson (15 points).  Their power play is last in the league, connecting on 9.2% of their opportunities, and their penalty kill is 26th.  Bottom line is this is a bad hockey club, and whether the Islanders are starting Halak, Johnson, Poulin, me or you in net, they should win.  Emphasis on "should."

The Sabres will start Jonas Enroth tonight, who despite a 3.05 goals against average, has posted a solid .912 save percentage.  With the Sabres in full McDavid mode, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Enroth dealt by the deadline.  Hey, does anyone know a local team that could use a reliable backup?  Let me think...hmmm...

John Tavares and Kyle Okposo lead the Islander offense with 29 points apiece so far this season.  After a sluggish several-week period, the two have been getting stronger in recent games and appear to be close to the level where they were last season before the Olympics.  With the Islanders riding Poulin tonight, it'd be a good idea if the club could put up at least four or five tonight and give the young goalie plenty of offensive support.

It would also be nice if the Islanders' power play gained some traction tonight against the 26th ranked penalty kill. The Islanders are middle of the pack in 16th in the power play, but have gone a pathetic 1 for 17 its last six games, often failing to gain any momentum, let alone quality scoring chances.

With the Washington Capitals on deck before hitting the road for seven, tonight is a huge two-points for the Islanders to continue to pad the cushion they currently have on the teams behind them, while maintaining pressure on the first-place Penguins. 

Despite the iffy goaltender situation, expect a solid road performance tonight from the Islanders.  They'll be extra cautious in their own end with Poulin in net and expect them to secure the win, 4-2. 

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.