The penultimate contest on the Buffalo Sabres' seven-game homestand comes Tuesday night, and the visitors are one of the big stories of the season in the NHL.
The New York Islanders will be in KeyBank Center for a 7 p.m. game, looking to maintain their hold on first place in the Metropolitan Division, while the Sabres continue to desperately grab points in the wild-card race.
Both teams were off Monday after playing back-to-back sets over the weekend. The Islanders swept Colorado and Minnesota to push their winning streak to three games, while the Sabres beat Detroit and lost to Winnipeg, derailing their eighth straight bid for a two-game winning streak.
The Sabres (27-21-7) enter Tuesday's game four points behind Pittsburgh for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot after the Penguins won Monday at Philadelphia, 4-1. The Sabres have a game in hand. Buffalo is 2-2-1 on the homestand, which wraps up Friday night against the New York Rangers.
The Islanders are 33-16-6, two victories shy of last season's totals with 27 games still to play. They have a three-point lead over defending Stanley Cup champion Washington after the Caps' 6-4 win Monday against Los Angeles. They are second in the Eastern Conference and fifth overall in the NHL standing.
While the Sabres started to seriously cool off in mid-December, shortly after their 10-game winning streak ended, the Islanders have taken off with a 19-4-2 burst since Dec. 15 to claim the top spot in the Metro.
The Islanders have finished no higher than third in a division since 2002 and haven't won a title since taking the Patrick Division crown in 1988. It's a remarkable turnaround season, certainly unexpected in the wake of captain John Tavares' departure to Toronto in free agency.
But new General Manager Lou Lamoriello lured Barry Trotz from Washington be his coach after Trotz could not agree on an extension with the Caps following their Stanley Cup season. And Trotz has received impeccable goaltending while splitting duties virtually down the middle between ex-Sabre Robin Lehner (17-8-4, 2.05/.930) and Thomas Greiss (16-8-2, 2.28/.927).
Lehner made 39 saves in the teams' first meeting, a 3-1 Islanders victory here on New Year's Eve. It was his first appearance in Buffalo after the Sabres walked away from his deal as a restricted free agent in June. Lehner revealed in September he had been treated over the summer for alcohol abuse and bipolar disorder.
The Islanders lead the league with the fewest goals against (133), while Lehner leads the league in both goals-against average and save percentage among goalies who have played at least 20 games. Gress is second in both categories.
In the midst of a difficult defensive day that saw him on the ice for all three Winnipeg goals, Rasmus Dahlin continued to climb up the rookie scoring leaders Sunday.
Dahlin's assist on Jack Eichel's goal was his 31st point of the season, tying him with Jim Benning (Toronto, 1981-82) and former Sabre Doug Bodger (Pittsburgh, 1984-85) for the third-most by an NHL defenseman at age 18. Only Housley (57 for the Sabres in 1982-83) and Bobby Orr (41 for Boston in 1966-67) have tallied more.
Dahlin is second in the NHL in rookie scoring and tied for the lead in assists with 25. Vancouver's Elias Pettersson also has 25 assists and leads first-year players with 50 points.