The New York Islanders are atop the Metropolitan Division and second in the Eastern Conference. They're 21-7-3 since Dec. 1 and 12-3-2 since the calendar turned to 2019. They've given up the fewest goals against in the NHL. They're in town tonight for a 7 p.m. game against the Buffalo Sabres.
Not great timing for a Buffalo team desperate for points.
"It's going to be difficult, a really tight checking game," Sabres winger and former Islander Kyle Okposo admitted after today's morning skate. "You know it's going to be really tight and you can't get frustrated. You have to trust your game, trust the fact that you are going to get opportunities and when you do, you have to be ready. They're not going to come all the time."
Sabres coach Phil Housley had preached "shot mentality" all season and the Sabres had 36 shots on goal and 66 attempts Sunday against Winnipeg. In fact, they've had at least 36 on goal four of the last five games. They will need more of that pressure tonight.
"Our 'D' are going to have to try to change an angle, find a lane and then we're going to have to win that race to the net," Housley said. "It's going to be important that we come with that attitude, not only in the zone but off the rush too. Get pucks to the net and get guys going there."
Here are Five Things to Know about tonight's game:
1. Standings watch: The Sabres are four points back of idle Pittsburgh for the final wild-card and will use their game in hand tonight. Buffalo is 2-2-1 on its homestand and sits one point behind Carolina, which is at Ottawa. Columbus is tied with Pittsburgh at 65 points but owns third in the Metropolitan Division on tiebreakers. The Blue Jackets host Washington, trying to claw within two points of the Caps for second place behind the Islanders.
2. Mittelstadt watch: The pregame warmup will be a key talking point for the Sabres, as Casey Mittelstadt left the morning skate early due to a lower-body injury. He has not missed any of the first 61 games he's been available for since joining the team last March. C.J. Smith – a healthy scratch the last two games after scoring goals in his previous two – would draw into the lineup. Mittelstadt has eight goals and 11 assists for the season, but has seven points in his last 10 games.
3. Lehner is back again: Former Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, who made 39 saves here in the Islanders' 3-1 win over Buffalo on New Year's Eve, will again be in goal for the Islanders tonight against Linus Ullmark. Lehner is 17-8-4 and leads the NHL for goalies who have played at least 20 games with a 2.05 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. He's 13-2-1 since Dec. 18, tied for tops in the NHL in wins in that span.
"It feels a little bit better being here this time. It was kind of nice to get it over and done with last time," Lehner said after today's morning skate. "They're a good team over there. That's how I see it right now. Very fast and a lot of skill. We're going to have to be ready."
4. What makes the Islanders so strong defensively? It's a commitment to coach Barry Trotz's system and structure over sheer talent. The Islanders have some veterans on defense like Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, and 2013 first-round Ryan Pulock has emerged this season (26 points, plus-11 rating) but it's not like their blueline is full of All-Stars. Lehner and Thomas Greiss are 1-2 in goals-against and save percentage. Housley noted how the Sabres had trouble in the first meeting with Islanders forwards stripping pucks from behind on the backcheck.
It all adds up. The Islanders have given up just 128 goals in 55 games (2.32 per game). Dallas is next at 140. In the East, Boston is next at 143.
"The first part of the season we played good in spurts but we had some holes in our game and made some mistakes," Lehner said. "The last few months we 'waterproofed' it a bit and have shown we're a really solid team that can defend and also score goals."
"They're really really tight in their structure," Okposo said. "I know a lot of guys over there and they've just said that Trotz has demanded them to play a certain way and they're really buying into that. Their structure is very, very solid and there's not going to be a lot of room out there. They are all going to be in the right spots. You've got to win your 1-on-1 battles."
5. By the numbers: Anders Lee leads the Islanders with 18 goals while reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal has 16 goals and a team-high 48 points. ... Sabres center Jack Eichel already has a career-high 41 assists, making the first Buffalo player to top 40 since Jason Pominville had 43 in 2011-12. ... Sam Reinhart's 49 points are one shy of the career high he set last season. ... Rasmus Dahlin leads rookie defensemen and is second among all first-year players with 31 points. ... The Islanders are 5-1 in overtime but only 3-5 in shootouts. Yes, Lehner is a culprit there at 0-3 while stopping six of 11 attempts.