Isles have big challenge; Rangers are flying

Evgeni Nabokov of the New York Islanders saves

Evgeni Nabokov of the New York Islanders saves a shot by Tim Connolly of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Dec. 23, 2011) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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Not quite one year ago -- Dec. 27, 2010, to be exact -- the Islanders prepared to face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Even though the season wasn't yet half over, it was considered to be all but over for the Isles, whose 1-17-3 slide through November and early December left them far out of the playoff chase.

The Islanders have come a long way in a year, but not far enough. They are more competitive and deeper than last season, less hampered by injuries to major players, but the numbers are surprisingly similar as they prepare for another post-holiday trip to the city.

The 2010-11 Islanders had played 33 games and were 9-18-6. This season's Isles have played 33 games and are 11-16-6, a difference of only four points. The goal differential was minus-31 last season (76 for, 107 against); the goal differential is minus-31 right now (78 for, 109 against). The Isles are 18 points behind the Rangers, exactly the same margin as last season.

The 2010-11 Rangers had 42 points through 36 games and were seventh in the Eastern Conference. This season the Rangers are only a point out of first place in the conference with 46 points in 33 games. The Atlantic Division leaders are a much better team defensively and much more explosive offensively.

"I'm happy the way we're playing, happy we're grabbing some points here early, but they don't give out playoff bids and all that stuff on Dec. 23," Rangers coach John Tortorella said after his team headed into the two-day holiday break on a four-game winning streak.

There are no playoff spots to be had now, but teams can be all but eliminated before the calendar flips to the new year. In the first six seasons since the 2004-05 lockout, only six Eastern Conference teams that were outside the top eight on Dec. 26 have rallied to make the playoffs. The 2010-11 Sabres came from the furthest back at eight points.

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The Islanders currently sit 11 points out. They know the difficulty facing them after last season's solid second half never brought them within shouting distance of a playoff berth.

That Dec. 27 game last season was a 7-2 rout for the Rangers. If the Islanders have any hope of changing their fortunes from last season, they have to start Monday night.

Notes & quotes: The Islanders might have to bring up a goalie from Bridgeport with Al Montoya (concussion) having been off the ice since he was injured in Tuesday's shootout win at Winnipeg. Evgeni Nabokov has started and lost the last two games.

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