Red Wings, Islanders face off in unlikely battle for the East

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Going into this season, not many people would have picked the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings to be serious contenders for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but that’s the situation we’re in as we close the books on January.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning lead the Eastern Conference pack with a 31-15-4 record, the Red Wings and Islanders are a mere point behind. Additionally, they’re arguably in a better spot as they have respectively played one and two fewer games than Tampa Bay. By the end of the day, we might have a new conference leader and this afternoon’s game between Detroit and the Islanders will obviously influence that.

Much has been said in recent weeks about the Islanders’ success as they’ve forced the conversation to shift from whether they’re a playoff team to if they’re a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. To that end, these next few weeks will be a key test of their depth and perseverance as they’re playing without first line forward Kyle Okposo (upper body).

Detroit is in a similarly tough spot as goaltenders Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson have been sidelined. However, even with third-string netminder Petr Mrazek leading the charge, Detroit has managed to win eight of its last 10 contests.

In recent years the Red Wings have gone from being one of the most feared teams in the league to a squad that was viewed as being on the bubble of even making the playoffs at all. Their rapid rise back to prominence is a testament to their ability to rebuild internally without the need for top draft picks.

“They have a real good mix of young players that possess a lot of speed,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano noted, per his team’s website. “It’s a great feeder system in Grand Rapids. They’ve been doing a good job, and they draft well. It’s a credit to them because when they put those young guys in the lineup, they don’t rush them. They’ve paid their dues down there and they’ve played extremely well.”

Meanwhile, Montreal is also in the mix for the East’s top spot and will play against Washington this afternoon. Tampa Bay will face Columbus tonight.

Related:

PHT Morning Skate: Mike Bossy thinks the Isles can win the Cup