Pregame 3/25/14: Isles Head South to Battle Carolina

The New York Islanders hit the road to Raleigh, North Carolina to face the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night, kicking off a mini two-game road trip. The series between the two has been all Carolina since the beginning of the 2012/13 season as the Hurricanes have won all 6 matchups. The Islanders will try to snap the skid while also pulling into a .500 record on the road this season.  Each of the previous three games this season have been decided by one goal, the latest coming back in January at the Coliseum, a 3-2 Carolina victory. (Photo credit: Jonathan_Hawkins/flickr).

The Islanders are coming off an impressive 2-0 victory over Columbus on Sunday afternoon. In a game that was played with the energy befitting its 1pm start, the Islanders used 41 saves by Evgeni Nabakov to put a serious blow into the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances. The Islanders got goals from Cal Clutterbuck and Travis Hamonic and actually held on to a two-goal 3rd period lead. You knew it has been a rough season in that regard when the team played Al Michaels’ “do you believe in miracles” shriek over the loudspeaker as the final seconds ticked off the clock (okay, that didn’t really happen, but you couldn’t blame them if they did).

Despite surrendering 41 shots to Columbus, Nabakov was not forced to be great as the Islanders did a solid job of limiting the chances from high quality spots. It will be interesting to see if Jack Capuano will let the veteran Nabakov back between the pipes to follow up his strong performance or if he will turn to rookie Anders Nilsson. At his best, Nilsson has looked average this season. At his worst, he has been dreadful.  But the team may want to see how the kid responds to the drubbing he took against Minnesota a week ago.

Kyle Okposo played Sunday against Columbus despite leaving practice early Friday. He is still listed as “day-to-day” but reports are stating he will travel with the team. It is fair to expect Okposo to be back in the lineup again Tuesday night on the top line with Frans Nielsen and Anders Lee.  (Photo credit: Chris Lukowski/flickr).

The Hurricanes are coming off a 3-2 victory in Winnipeg and holding onto the faintest of playoff hopes as they sit 9 points behind the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Goaltender Cam Ward made 34 saves while earning the first star. The Hurricanes got goals from Eric Staal, Jordan Staal and Riley Nash in the game.

The Hurricanes possess size and skill among its top six forwards with the Staal brothers, Alexander Semin, and Jeff Skinner.  Skinner leads the team with 26 goals while Eric Staal tops the squad with 55 points.  Defenseman Andrej Sekera has had a career year notching 44 points so far while playing top pairing minutes in his first season since coming over from Buffalo.

Carolina has also gotten stellar play this season in net from Anton Khudobin.  The Russian goaltender played parts of four seasons with Minnesota and Boston before hitting free agency last summer. The 27-year old signed a one-year contract with Carolina for $800,000, giving the team plenty bang for the buck posting a .927 save percentage with a 2.28 goals against average this year. The Hurricanes rewarded his strong play with a two-year extension right before the trade deadline, fueling the speculation that Cam Ward’s playing days in Raleigh may be coming to an end.  No doubt the Islanders should be keeping tabs on the situation.

Keys to the Game:

For the Islanders they need to build on their defensive effort against Columbus and carry it into Carolina. Whether Nabakov or Nilsson get the nod in net, the Islanders’ defense needs to continue to keep pucks and bodies to the outside and give their goalie a clean crease.

Carolina comes in with the 19th ranked goals against in the league, so there will be chances for the Islanders to pot a few goals. The shaky Carolina defense will be a welcome sight for the Islanders, especially if Nilsson is in net as they will probably need to score at least 4 to get the win.

For Carolina, they need to force this inexperienced Islander defense on its heels and pressure them to make quick decisions. The Staal brothers need to use their size to cause chaos in front of the Islander net which should allow them to pop a few in.  Eric Staal has terrorized the Islanders in the past with 21 goals and 16 assists in 37 career games against them so look for the Carolina captain to have an impactful game. (Photo credit: douglasgallery30/flickr).

The Islanders should expect a desperate team Tuesday night in Carolina as they battle to stay relevant in the playoff race.  The Islanders can play the all-too familiar role of “spoiler” and essentially end Carolina’s season with a win in PNC Arena…added bonus if they can make former Islander Kirk Muller cry.

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