Cliff Ronning has quickly made Mike Milbury look like a genius.
Ronning will look to continue his fast start with the New York Islanders when they travel to Toronto to resume their developing rivalry with the Maple Leafs.
Signed 10 days ago as a free agent to offset injuries to Alexei Yashin and Mark Parrish, the 38-year-old Ronning has made an immediate impact for the Islanders and general manager Milbury. The power-play specialist has scored three goals in his last two games, including two in Monday’s 5-2 win over Ottawa.
Ronning, who has 848 points in his 16-year career, also notched his 300th goal in the win. He says he couldn’t be happier to be playing on Long Island.
“I was skating with beer-league players before I came here, and I realized how much I loved the game,” Ronning said. “Even at 40-50, you may not be able to live this dream of playing in the NHL, but you realize how much you play the game for the love of it.”
With the win, the Islanders moved into sole possession of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the archrival Rangers, who lost 5-2 in Boston on Monday.
“I look at it as two points rather than who we beat,” Islanders coach Steve Stirling said, referring to Ottawa, which would be the fourth seed in the East if the season ended today. “Yes, it’s nice, but the points are the most important thing.”
The Islanders and Maple Leafs have developed one of the more heated rivalries in the NHL, dating to their physical 2001-02 first-round playoff series, which Toronto won in seven games.
The struggling Maple Leafs should come into this contest extremely motivated as they are just 3-5-1 this month and probably still have bitter memories of the Islanders’ 3-1 win on Dec. 27 at Nassau Coliseum, which ended Toronto’s 16-game point streak.
Tied with Philadelphia for the top spot in the East, the Maple Leafs were outscored 8-1 in a home-and-home sweep by the Flyers during the weekend.
In just over a week, the Maple Leafs have lost four games to the top three teams in the East—Ottawa, New Jersey, Philadelphia—by a combined score of 16-2.
Toronto goaltender Ed Belfour, pulled in the first period Friday after allowing three goals on 12 shots, allowed four on 24 Saturday.
“We made errors in our end that you can’t do against the top teams,” Leafs captain Mats Sundin said. “We have to have a better effort against the top teams.”