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Hot Lightning next test for Islanders' improved defense
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Latest Line: Tampa Bay -170 O/U: 6.5
 
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"What a difference a year makes."

The old adage seemingly applies to the New York Islanders' turnaround this season.

The Islanders play host to the scorching hot Tampa Bay Lightning at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Sunday night as both Eastern Conference teams comes off games the day before.

The big difference this season for the Islanders, who have won 10 of their last 13 games?

Defense.

Under first-year coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders (24-15-4) have tightened up the gaps, and the numbers supporting the Islanders' rise in the standings are as obvious as the flashing red light each time a goal is scored in the Brooklyn arena -- though it hasn't lit up behind New York's goal very often of late.

Through Friday's contests, the comparisons from last season to this season showed a vast improvement in the Islanders' own end.

Last season, they allowed 3.57 goals per game, the most markers flying into nets per any team in the NHL. This season's group ranks fourth overall, allowing just 2.64 per game -- almost a full goal less.

They give up over four fewer shots against per game, and in a 10-3-0 stretch that vaulted them into a wild card spot, the Islanders yielded 28 goals (2.15 per game).

Offensively, Mathew Barzal has 14 points (nine goals, five assists) over New York's last 10 games. Trotz said the silky-skating center is having to adjust from game to game as he competes in his second season.

"When Matty's going, he's a difference-maker," Trotz said of Barzal. "For him, it's getting game-in and game-out consistency. Every game is a little bit different. Just like any young player, he has to understand the game that's thrown at you and play off that."

In Saturday's matinee affair against their crosstown rivals, the Islanders lost 2-1 to the New York Rangers in their fourth and final meeting. The teams split the season series, and the Rangers won for the first time ever in Brooklyn in eight games.

The Islanders will try to accomplish something on Sunday that no ever Metropolitan Division was able to do in the first half of the season -- earn a win over the NHL's top team.

The Atlantic Division-leading Lightning (35-8-2) have run roughshod over their divisional opposition in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay improved to 12-0-0 against the Metropolitan Division after beating the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 on Thursday.

Tampa Bay was also playing in the Empire State on Saturday, scoring three unanswered goals in the third period to beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-3 in the third of four meetings between the teams.

Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan all tallied as the club rallied to win in the final period for the second straight game. In all, the Lightning are 21-2-1 in their last 24 contests.

Coach Jon Cooper said the game was similar to the one against Carolina -- a bad first period, decent second and good third.

"I let the leaders take over in the second period, and as the game went on we got stronger and stronger," said Cooper, whose group held Buffalo to only five shots in the third period. "If we want to keep playing deep in the spring, they're going to have to fight through problems."

--Field Level Media