If the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make a run at the playoffs, a five-game homestand would be a good place to start. A matchup with the New York Islanders at Air Canada Centre should provide some assistance.
The Maple Leafs look to continue their home dominance over the Islanders on Thursday night when two teams on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture meet for the third time this season.
There may be a little less than two months left in the regular season, but the Maple Leafs (23-26-9) and the Islanders (25-25-7) don’t have much time left to decide whether they will be buyers or sellers at the Feb. 26 trading deadline.
New York is 13th in the East, six points behind Boston and the New York Rangers, both tied for the final postseason berth. Toronto, meanwhile, is two points back of the Islanders and one point ahead of Tampa Bay, which owns the worst record in the conference.
Facing the Islanders at home has usually helped the Maple Leafs build some momentum.
Including a 2002 playoff series between the teams, Toronto is 14-1-1 with one tie at home against New York since the start of the 2000-01 season. The Islanders’ only regulation win in that span came on March 28, 2002.
Right wing Darcy Tucker has played a big role in that success, tallying seven goals and seven assists in his last 11 games against the Isles.
The Leafs are 1-0-1 in this season’s series, recording an 8-1 victory at Air Canada Centre on Oct. 11.
Coming off wins over Montreal and Ottawa - two of the league’s best teams - Toronto played well again Wednesday at Buffalo, but couldn’t get any of its 35 shots past Ryan Miller in a 1-0 loss.
“We played a really good game. We were the better team for most of the game,” captain Mats Sundin said. “Miller was the difference.”
Vesa Toskala was sharp in stopping 19 shots for the Leafs, who dropped to 10-16-4 on the road. They have been much better at home, going 13-10-5, winning five of seven there.
Left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky, third on the team with 13 goals, returned to Toronto’s lineup after missing seven games with a dislocated shoulder.
Toronto’s Jason Blake, who spent the previous five seasons with the Islanders, has one assist in two games against his former team. Blake has only 11 goals with the Leafs after scoring a career-high 40 with New York last season.
The Islanders ended a seven-game losing streak Tuesday, registering a season-high 47 shots in a 4-3 home victory over Philadelphia.
Trent Hunter broke out of his offensive slump with a goal and two assists as New York won for the first time Jan. 22.
“It was nice to get that win and it gives us something to build on,” said Hunter, who hadn’t scored since Jan. 11. “We can’t relax. We have to focus, and we’ve got a big job ahead of us.”
The news, however, wasn’t all good for the Islanders, who lost Brendan Witt, their most physical defenseman, to a bruised knee in the first period.
Losing Witt for any length of time would be a big blow to New York, which is already without center Mike Sillinger (hip) and defensemen Chris Campoli (shoulder) and Bruno Gervais, who sat out Tuesday with a strained oblique muscle.
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