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Surprising contenders face off as Isles visit Flames

With 35 wins in the 2017-18 season, the New York Islanders finished 17 points out of a playoff spot.

With 35 wins through only 58 games this season, the Islanders (35-17-6, 76 points) find themselves one of the NHL's biggest surprises, sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division.

"It's a complete opposite. If you look at our defensive game from last year to this year and just the way we find a way to win tight games compared to last year," defenseman Ryan Pulock told the team's website. "When you're comfortable in those positions, it makes it a lot easier. Over the last 30-40 games, we've been comfortable in those tight spots, and just have guys step up and find a way to get the job done."

Case in point for the Islanders was Saturday's 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, their second consecutive victory and the latest success in a 11-2-2 run.

"Up 2-1 going into the third, that was a fragile spot last year for us. Tonight we were just locking it down, staying aggressive and (kept) the same mindset all the way through," forward Mathew Barzal said. "This team has come a long way, even from the start of the season this year."

Next up for the Islanders is a tough test against a club that's been just as much as a surprise story. Wednesday's clash at the Calgary Flames will kick off a three-game road trip through Western Canada.

The Islanders are also receiving a boost, with both Andrew Ladd and Thomas Hickey back from injuries.

The Flames (36-16-7, 79 points), who entered Tuesday atop the Western Conference, kicked off a three-game homestand with a 5-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Monday afternoon.

While the Islanders have turned their fortunes by becoming the league's best defensive club, the Flames have become the second-most prolific scoring squad in the league.

The latest player on the Flames to post a new career high for points is captain Mark Giordano, who collected a goal and an assist in the win over Arizona to give him 57 points. Making Giordano's story even more impressive is the fact he's 35 years old -- very late in a career to be a having a breakout campaign.

"It always feels good to contribute and get points offensively but, again, we have such a good team and we score so many goals that a lot of guys' numbers are going to look really good this year," Giordano, a contender for the Norris Trophy as the league's top blueliner, said after the win. "More importantly, where we are in the standings, it is huge for our team right now, and we want to keep pushing and try and get that top spot."

The Flames are also buoyed by improved play of late from No. 1 goalie Mike Smith, who's started the last three games and appears to be rounding into form after inconsistent play through much of the campaign.

"I feel great, to start with that," Smith said. "But I think I've never been one to get complacent and say, 'You got it.' I think you never quite have it in this league. I think as soon as you think you got it, it can turn on you pretty quick.

"So I think I'm going to keep as even-keel as possible here. I know I've came a long ways and worked real hard in practice to get back to where I know I'm capable of playing. I'm getting rewarded with some starts and some good play and some wins."

--Field Level Media

Updated February 19, 2019

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