The New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently on the outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. That may not be the case for the winner of Thursday night’s key matchup at Nassau Coliseum.
The Islanders (29-23-8) and Maple Leafs (29-23-8) are tied for ninth place in the East standings, one point behind Carolina and two back of Montreal. Depending on how the Hurricanes and Canadiens fare in their respective games on Thursday, either New York or Toronto could be among the top eight teams at the end of the night.
Despite missing captain Alexei Yashin, the Islanders have been one of the league’s best teams over the past three weeks. They have at least a point in 12 of their last 14 games (8-2-4), with both regulation losses coming to red-hot New Jersey.
The Islanders ended Pittsburgh’s 16-game point streak Monday, rallying from a two-goal deficit to win 6-5 on Mike Sillinger’s goal with 26.8 seconds remaining.
Chris Simon ended a 26-game goal drought with a pair of scores and Randy Robitaille had three assists as New York rebounded from a 2-0 loss to the Devils and improved to 2-1 on a seven-game homestand.
“We found a way to win,” Sillinger said. “When you outscore a team like this, you’re doing something right.”
Also contributing to the victory was defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, who had two assists in his Islanders debut after he was acquired Sunday from Edmonton.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s like a fresh breath,” Bergeron said. “It’s a new system, new guys, new coach, and everybody’s been really nice. I feel really fortunate to have that support already.”
“Ricky made some huge saves to keep us in there,” Simon said. “He’s been the difference on a lot of nights for us.”
One of DiPietro’s best games of the season came in a 3-2 shootout win at Toronto on Feb. 13. He made 39 saves in regulation and overtime before outdueling Andrew Raycroft in the shootout.
The Maple Leafs continued to struggle at home with a 3-0 loss Tuesday to Boston despite holding a 43-22 shots advantage.
“There was not enough urgency in our game,” captain Mats Sundin said. “Even though we traded a lot of chances we just didn’t have the killer instinct. We need to get back to that.”
Toronto, which had a four-game point streak snapped, dropped to 12-13-5 at home. Only league-worst Philadelphia has fewer home wins (five) in the East.
While they have struggled at Air Canada Centre, the Leafs have won five of six away from home and are 17-10-3 on the road overall. Only Buffalo, owner of the NHL’s best record, has more road wins (19) in the conference.
“You wonder what’s going on there,” Sundin said. “We need to play better at home. There’s no doubt about that. You can’t have a .500 record at home and make the playoffs.”
Raycroft allowed three goals on 13 shots Tuesday before he was replaced by Jean-Sebastien Aubin at the start of the third period. Raycroft, who figures to be back in net Thursday, was making his 21st straight start.
The teams have split two meetings this season, both in Toronto. The Islanders had won three straight and seven of eight at home against the Leafs before a 4-3 overtime loss on April 13.