The New York Islanders will make the short trip to Prudential Centre to face-off against Metropolitan Division rivals New Jersey Devils on Saturday.
The thrilling Devils are 10-3-1 at home this season and 21-4-1 overall and with 43 points top the Metropolitan Division and the joint lead the NHL standings with Boston who have played a game less.
The Islanders are fourth in the same division with a 16-11-0 record and in possession of the first Wild Card spot into the playoffs. The Devils are -192 to be victorious and the Islanders +167.
The Islanders were beaten by eventual Champions Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final two seasons straight before missing the playoffs completely last season by 16 points.
The major disappointment cost coach Barry Trotz his job and he was replaced by assistant Lane Lambert who has helped the Islanders re-discover their confidence and they are -150 to re-gain a place in the playoffs this season.
58-year-old Lambert served as Trotz's assistant for four years in New York and also won the Stanley Cup alongside Trotz with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
The Islanders did little to change the roster in the off-season, trusting that last season was a blip and the coaching change would be enough to garner a response.
Lambert has allowed the Islanders to play more freely with an emphasis on offence, improving from 2.82 average goals per-game last season to 3.19 this season (14th in the NHL).
His system places significant pressure on goalies Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov but each has been able to handle that and helped the Islanders concede just the fifth least goals in the NHL (2.70 from 2.89 last season).
The Devils, too, have massively improved from last season and are not only just set to end their four-year absence from the playoffs (-4000) but are challenging to win the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular season team (+375) and are +900 to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2003.
New Jersey have scored the fourth most goals in the league (3.69) and conceded the second least (2.19).
Key to their success has been the form of their young core of Jack Hughes (31 points; 13 goals, 18 assists), Jesper Bratt (28 points; 10 goals, 18 assists) and Nico Hischier (27 points; 11 goals, 16 assists) and goalie Vitek Vanecek who was acquired from Washington Capitals in the off-season.
Following several years of inconsistency between the pipes, Vanecek has far exceeded expectations and emerged as the team’s unquestioned starter with a 12-2-1 record, .922 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against-average (GAA).
His form has helped the Devils set a franchise record with 21 wins in their first 26 games, which falls just one short of the NHL record of wins in that amount of games.
Vanecek is in his third season in the NHL and is set to smash his career most of 42 games played in a single season. In total he has 96 appearances in the league with a .910 save percentage and 2.58 GAA.
The Devils beat the Islanders 4-1 in the first meeting between the teams in late October at UBS Arena in New York.
Ondrej Palat scored twice for the Devils, but now injured the Islanders will be thankful that they won't have to come up against him again.
A key to that victory was New Jersey's dominance on the face-off dot, winning 61% of draws which led to a lopsided 43-17 advantage in shots on goal.
The Islanders (49.9%, 15th in the NHL) will need a big improvement in this area to prevent the confident Devils (53.2%, sixth in the NHL) controlling the play again.
While Vanecek has been excellent for the Devils, the Islanders too have enjoyed the luxury of solid goaltending and whoever starts out of Sorokin and Varlamov will give New York opportunity to be successful.
Sorokin (10-8-0) played the first game between the two and was labelled the Islanders' best player on the night by coach Lambert.
He possesses a .927 save-percentage, 2.33 GAA and is +350 favourite to win the Vezina Trophy as goalie of the season. Varlamov (6-3-0) has a .922 save percentage and 2.52 GAA.
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