Despite coming off one of their worst performances of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs return home with a chance to end the league's longest playoff drought.
The New York Islanders have to like their chances of getting back to the postseason as they hit the road.
While New York's last trip to the playoffs came in 2007 - tied for the third-longest drought in the NHL - Toronto has not qualified since 2004. The Maple Leafs, looking to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time in a month, could lock up a postseason berth as early as Thursday if they beat the Islanders and ninth-place Winnipeg loses in regulation to Carolina a bit later in the night.
Being at home for the first potential chance to end that playoff drought could be a big help considering Toronto (24-15-5) has won three straight and seven of eight there. The Maple Leafs looked sluggish on the road Tuesday, falling 5-1 at Washington for their most lopsided loss of the season.
It was the fewest goals they have scored in 15 games and tied the second-most they've allowed all season.
"It looked like we had nothing in the tank, nothing to give," said coach Randy Carlyle, whose club hasn't dropped two straight since an 0-3-2 skid March 7-16. "We weren't playing anywhere near the level which was required."
Still in the race for the Northeast Division title, trailing Montreal and Boston, Toronto is fifth in the Eastern Conference and three points ahead of sixth-place Ottawa.
The Islanders (22-16-5) are in the seventh position, four points back of Toronto, and enter on a 6-0-2 run. It's their longest points streak since going 9-0-1 with a tie to open the 2001-02 season.
"We're doing the little things well, and our effort is there every night," goaltender Evgeni Nabokov said after the Islanders closed their home schedule with Tuesday's 5-2 victory over Florida. "That is why we are winning."
Nabokov has yielded two goals or fewer in eight straight starts, and just one in each of his last three outside Uniondale.
The Islanders are 6-1-1 in their last eight away from home and own one of the league's best road records at 12-5-2. They close the regular season on a five-game trip, and all four opponents after Thursday are outside the top eight in the East - Winnipeg, Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo.
The Leafs could provide a tougher test, having gone 12-3-2 in its last 17 on home ice.
New York, though, has won two in a row at Toronto and overcame a two-goal deficit in a 7-4 victory Jan. 24 in its only visit this season.
The Maple Leafs will try to end the visiting club's four-game winning streak in this series. They won 5-4 on Feb. 28 in the last meeting on Dion Phaneuf's goal in overtime.
Nazem Kadri notched his first career hat trick in that game, and four of his team-best 17 goals have come against the Islanders. He enters this matchup having not scored in seven consecutive games.
Brad Boyes, Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner, who netted two goals Tuesday, each have three to lead New York in the season series.
The Associated Press News Service
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