NEW YORK — For the second straight season, the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres will meet at one of the bookends of the NHL’s Christmas break. Unfortunately for the Sabres, they’re in the same position this year as last year.
The Islanders will look to build on the momentum they created prior to the break Wednesday night, when they host the reeling Sabres at Barclays Center.
Both teams last played Saturday, the final day before the three-day break. The Islanders maintained their standing in the Eastern Conference playoff race by beating the visiting Winnipeg Jets, 5-2. The latest rough season for the Sabres, meanwhile, continued with a 4-2 loss to the host Carolina Hurricanes.
Since their only winning streak of the season — a two-game run from Oct. 21-24 — the Sabres (9-20-7) have gone 6-15-5 to entrench themselves in the basement of the Atlantic Division.
The Sabres have missed the playoffs in each of the last six seasons and finished last in the Atlantic in three of the last four seasons. And if his comments Saturday are any indication, the constant losing that is beginning to take a toll on the franchise’s most important player, third-year star center Jack Eichel.
Following the loss to the Hurricanes — a game in which Carolina took a lead it would never relinquish by scoring a mere 33 seconds into the first period — Eichel, in a one-on-one interview with The Buffalo News, criticized Buffalo’s readiness coming off a 4-2 win Friday night over the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I think it shows a lack of maturity as a group for us right now with the position that we’re in,” Eichel told the newspaper. “We played last night. We’re traveling, we’re in a back-to-back. They’re here and ready and waiting for us. They’re at home right before break. You know they’re going to come out and play hard. And from the first shift, we’re chasing the game.”
Unlike last season, the Islanders haven’t spent most of the season chasing the rest of the Eastern Conference. New York entered the Christmas break last season tied for last in the East with the Sabres following a 5-1 win at Barclays Center on Dec. 23 before eventually missing the playoffs by one point.
The Islanders are 4-6-2 since a season-high four-game winning streak from Nov. 22-28, but the win Saturday kept them tied for the Eastern Conference wild card spots with the New York Rangers while providing a template for remaining in the playoff race.
Goalie Jaroslav Halak recorded 38 saves for the Islanders, who rank second in the NHL in both goals scored (130) and goals allowed (127).
“It was a good win,” Islanders head coach Doug Weight said. “It was a good test for us, going through some issues. It was a good challenge and I think it was well-goaltended.”
Halak is likely to draw the start again for the Islanders. He is 9-2-0 in 11 appearances against the Sabres.
Robin Lehner, the Sabres’ No. 1 goaltender, should return to the net after Chad Johnson took the loss Saturday night. Lehner, who earned the win Friday after recording 33 saves against the Flyers, is 3-3-2 in eight games against the Islanders.