Battle of Eastern contenders; Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Islanders preview

The Tampa Bay Lightning complete their road back-to-back set on Long Island for their third and final match-up this season with the surprising New York Islanders.

Where: Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, New York
When: 7 PM EST | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio) | Twitter Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Lighthouse Hockey

It would be fun to watch these two Eastern Conference contenders face each other when both teams are fresh and not playing half of a back-to-back set.

Unfortunately, if that's to happen, it will have to be in the playoffs.

The Lightning downed won a match-up between these two teams 5-2 on November 15; but the Isles had played the night before. The Islanders then won the re-match three days later in the second half of a back-to-back for the Lightning.

Once last time this regular season, these teams will meet, and once again, at least one team won't be "rested". This time, both sides played the night before: the Lightning, falling 3-2 in a shootout to the New Jersey Devils; and the Islanders 2-1 winners over the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. So while this is a home game for the Isles, it's likely that the Lightning arrived in town well before the home team and should be, theoretically, more well-rested.

Regardless of who is more rested, this should be a good test for a Lightning team coming off a shootout loss to New Jersey the night before; the Islanders are one of the NHL's most surprising teams this year, riding, as always, a top-scoring line anchored by John Tavares and now bolstered by a bevy of strong off season acquisitions in Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, Nick Leddy, and Johnny Boychuk. That group, combined with an overhauled group in net with Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson, has helped transform the Islanders from interesting bubble team into legitimate Eastern Conference threat.

The Isles, like the Lightning, pride themselves on an improved puck possession game. While the Bolts sit at 2nd in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi, the Islanders are in the top 10 by that metric themselves, and they'll have last change for head coach Jack Capuano to get the match-ups he wants against the top-6 for Tampa.

With Evgeni Nabokov and Jaroslav Halak playing in games last night, the expectation was that the goaltending match-up would be between journeyman backup Chad Johnson for the Isles and 20-year old Andrei Vaslievskiy for the Bolts. Johnson played in the Lightning win over the Islanders earlier this season, allowing 5 goals on 28 shots. He has a save percentage of .868 in 10 games played so far this year. Vasilevskiy will get his second career NHL start after earning his first win in his first start, allowing only a power play marker to Wayne Simmond en route to a .958 save percentage against the Philadelphia Flyers and a 3-1 Lightning win.

However, the Islanders have opted instead to start Halak on back-to-back nights for the first time this season. He stopped 17 of 18 shots last night in a win over Detroit.

Also, Ryan Callahan will skate in his 500th game tonight:

No official word yet on the status of Ben Bishop or Tyler Johnson; both skated this morning and Johnson (who is fighting a stomach bug) is closer to returning than Bishop. If Johnson can't go, the lines would probably look very similar to last night in New Jersey, with Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, Brian Boyle, and Cedric Paquette anchoring the four units. That's one benefit for the Lighnting to carrying so many natural centers playing on the wing.