By Nicolino DiBenedetto
(AP) — Lacking hype while playing on the last-place New York Islanders, Michael Grabner is forcing his way into contention for the Calder Trophy.
A more pressing concern for Grabner and the Islanders is Rick DiPietro’s latest injury status.
New York may have DiPietro back in net for the first time in six weeks when they try to end an eight-game road losing streak to the Florida Panthers on Saturday night.
The Islanders (27-33-12) lost their sixth straight away from home and dropped to 0-1-2 on this five-game road trip with a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Friday.
Grabner can’t be blamed for the defeat, scoring his rookie-best 29th goal and setting up another to give him four goals and three assists in the last eight games.
While overshadowed by several other rookies, Grabner’s production is improving his chances to become the first Islander to win the Calder since Bryan Berard was honored as the league’s top rookie in 1996-97.
Grabner is among a young core of offensive options for New York, which is hoping to finally have the oft-injured DiPietro back from broken facial bones suffered during a fight with Pittsburgh counterpart Brent Johnson during a 3-0 loss Feb. 2.
The freak injury forced DiPietro to miss 20 games, and he was 7-10-4 with a 3.36 goals-against average and one shutout in 21 starts prior.
Al Montoya, who made 32 saves Friday, has been filled in admirably, going 7-3-4 with a 2.39 GAA and one shutout in 15 starts.
Returning against the Panthers (29-33-9) may not be ideal. DiPietro has lost six in a row to them with a 2.86 GAA, including a 26-save effort in a 4-3 road loss Oct. 23.
Grabner has been held without a point in three overall season meetings.
The Islanders are 0-7-1 at Florida since a 4-1 victory Nov. 18, 2006. However, they won 5-1 at home in the most recent meeting with the Panthers on Feb. 21, getting a hat trick from Matt Moulson and 20 saves from Montoya.
Moulson, the team leader with 30 goals, has found the net four times in 11 games since.
The Panthers are also in last place, sitting at the bottom of the Southeast Division. They’re trying to conclude a seven-game homestand above .500 before opening a five-game road trip at the New York Rangers on Tuesday.
Florida is trying to build on Thursday’s 4-0 win over Toronto, but hasn’t won consecutive games since a season-high three-game winning streak Jan. 11-15.
Still, coach Peter DeBoer is encouraged.
“We’ve got a lot of kids up here that are competing real hard and trying to do the right thing,” he said.
One of those youngsters is defenseman Keaton Ellerby, who has four points and a plus-4 rating over the last five games.
He had two assists against New York at home in October.
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