Isles Continue Home Stand Against Sabres

The New York Islanders square off with the Buffalo Sabres in a battle of last place teams Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum as the Islanders try to rebound from their latest home ice defeat, 4 to 3 to the San Jose Sharks.  The Islanders own the worst record on home ice this year, a far cry from the days of “Fort Neverlose.” (Photo credit: paul.hadsall/flickr)

Standing in their way are the Buffalo Sabres whose 46 points (19-39-8 record) have it comfortably “ahead” of the 29th place Edmonton Oilers in the race for worst record overall in the NHL and coveted top position in June’s draft lottery.

Tonight marks the second of three times Islanders and Sabres will meet this season. The last time these two met back in October the Islanders blew a late lead (stop me if you heard that before) before dropping the game 4 to 3 in a shootout. The Islanders outshot the Sabres 44 to 34, but strong goaltending kept Buffalo in the game and allowed them to mount their late comeback.

But oh have things changed. Due to a mix of trades and injuries, gone from that October matchup are the likes of John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Matt Moulson, Andrew MacDonald, Steve Ott, Peter Regin, Cody McCormick, and the immortal Pierre-Marc Bouchard. And in case you are keeping track, Matt Moulson scored for the Islanders and Thomas Vanek potted one for Buffalo that night.

The other big change for Buffalo is the coach, Ted Nolan, who makes his first return to the Coliseum since being fired after the 2007/08 season. Nolan, who helped the Islanders to a miraculous playoff appearance in the 2006/07 season, was re-hired by the Sabres on November 13th, 2013, and has coached the young Sabres to a 15-24-7 since he took the reigns over from Ron Rolston.

Both sides have plenty of fresh faces, but the freshest, Kevin Czuczman of the Islanders, stands to sneak his way onto the the blue line and debut in front of the home fans. Czuczman was signed earlier this week out of Lake Superior State. He watched the game from the press box Friday against the Sharks but a debut against the offensively-challenged Sabres makes sense as he gets accustomed to the NHL game.

The Islanders will look for its young forwards to continue to progress and get on the score sheet tonight. In particular, Anders Lee has shined the brightest recently with 9 points in 8 games since being called up from Bridgeport as he tries to cement his spot on the big club next season. His recent play and injury to Michael Grabner has led to his promotion to the top line playing wing with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo.

Speaking of offense, leading the way for Buffalo are forwards Tyler Ennis, Cody Hodgson, and Drew Stafford. The trio are the only remaining forwards with double-digit goals on the year for Buffalo and try to turn around an anemic attack that has scored only 7 goals in the five games since the trade deadline. One can imagine that going up against the Islanders and their league-worst goals against may have the Sabres licking their chops.

Expect Anders Nilsson to get the start tonight for the Islanders. Buffalo has split time between Jonas Enroth and newly-acquired Michael Neuvirth since the trade deadline. Neuvirth played in Buffalo’s last game Thursday night against Carolina, a 4 to 2 loss. Neuvirth stopped 51 of 54 shots that he faced, but there was no truth the rumor that “#PrayForNeuvirth” was trending on Twitter in western New York after the game. (Photo credit: CassieMadonia/flickr)

Keys to the Game

For the Islanders, score early, and score often. Buffalo has struggled mightily to score goals all year (league worst 125) and even moreso lately. While the Islanders have displayed time and time again this year that no lead they hold is too safe, this should be a team that will have trouble coming back from multiple goals down. As always though, the play of the man between the pipes will dictate whether the Islanders can grab the two points or make the collective fan base die a little more inside.

For the Sabres, keep it close. Similar to their match back in October, Buffalo needs to stay within a goal late and try to capitalize on the Islanders’ penchant for mistakes in their own end. Also, getting something, anything, on the power play would be a welcome sight for a team that has scored only 1 power play goal in 15 chances over its last five games.

Over last 10

Islanders: 3-6-1

Sabres: 4-6-0

Follow me @mikepac23 on Twitter and make sure to “like”The Checking line-Isles edition on Facebook as well as on Twitter@TCLIsles to stay up to the minute with all the latest Islanders news and notes.