Although the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders reached the All-Star break at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, both teams have reason for optimism.
The Hurricanes look to reinforce those good feelings with their first four-game home winning streak in almost two years Tuesday night against the Islanders.
Carolina, the Islanders and Buffalo open the season's second half tied for last place in the East and 10 points out of the final playoff spot. While the Sabres are spiraling downward, though, the Hurricanes (18-24-9) are 4-1-2 in their last seven games and New York (19-22-7) is 8-5-1 in its last 14.
Another strong game from Cam Ward helped Carolina close the first half with a 2-1 home victory over Winnipeg on Jan. 23. Jeff Skinner and Tim Brent scored first-period goals in support of Ward's 29 saves.
"We have been playing well lately, and it's probably a good time for our guys to recharge from what's happened at the beginning of the year to now,'' said coach Kirk Muller, who is 10-11-5 since taking over Nov. 28. "After three games in four nights you could see us losing our legs, but they found a great way to battle and pick up points."
The Hurricanes matched a season high with their third straight home win and improved to 8-2-1 in their last 11 at RBC Center. They last won four in a row there during an eight-game run Jan. 24-March 11, 2010.
Ward has been at the forefront of the team's solid play, going 5-2-2 with a 1.54 goals-against average in his last nine starts. Included in that span was a 38-save performance in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Islanders on Jan. 21 at Nassau Coliseum.
"We want to make sure we're in each and every game, and that's by keeping the game tight and not letting it get wide open," Ward told the Hurricanes' official website.
The other meeting between these teams this season also went beyond regulation, with New York winning 4-3 in a shootout at Carolina on Jan. 3. Islanders All-Star John Tavares has had a hand in all five scores against the Hurricanes in 2011-12, with two goals and three assists.
Tavares' team was denied a season-best fourth consecutive victory with a 3-0 loss at Toronto on Jan. 23, then squandered a two-goal lead in a 4-3 overtime loss at home to the Maple Leafs the following night.
The Islanders had no power-play opportunities in the home-and-home set, becoming the first team since Phoenix in November 2010 to not have a single chance with the man advantage in back-to-back games.
"To go two games without a penalty? I don't care how disciplined a team is, there's no way there is no penalties taken in two games," left wing Josh Bailey told the Islanders' official website. "It's baffling. It's disheartening. We're pretty (ticked) off about it."
Tavares had his NHL season-high 12-game point streak snapped in the shutout by Toronto, but scored his 20th goal in the overtime loss. He has nine goals and 13 assists in his last 14 games, also adding a goal and an assist in Sunday's All-Star game.
Behind two stellar games from Tavares, the Islanders have won two straight against the Hurricanes after a six-game skid in the series.
Evgeni Nabokov has been in net for both wins this season versus Carolina, improving to 8-1-1 with a 2.04 lifetime GAA against the Hurricanes.