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By Steve Keating
TORONTO, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Instead of the regular 82-game endurance test, the National Hockey League season has turned into a survival of the fittest as teams grapple with a rapid-fire schedule and mounting injuries in the lockout-shortened campaign.
With 48 games packed into a 99-day window, injuries have already become the wild card in an unpredictable season that is not yet a week old.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were not quite on survival mode on Thursday but the toll taken by three games in four nights and an injury to All-Star winger Joffrey Lupul was clear in their 7-4 loss to the New York Islanders.
Coming off a big away win over Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Toronto returned home and came out all guns blazing to race to a 3-1 first period lead.
The Leafs, however, ran out of gas midway through the second period as the Islanders struck five straight goals, including a pair each from Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner, to steal the win and head to Boston for a meeting with the Bruins on Friday.
"You're realistic, that is the second half of a back-to-back, it's not an excuse, it's just part of what you have to do," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle told reporters.
"I think we have nine back-to-backs and seven of them are in the same situation where we have the opposition here waiting while we are playing on the road.
"What you do is you try to mix and match your personnel and when you do get a lead you stick to the game plan and make the simple play.
"Giving up seven goals isn't usually conducive to winning."
With only a six-day training game, the first few weeks of the regular season were expected to produce some wacky results.
The topsy-turvy start left the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings entering Thursday's action still searching for their first win while the Philadelphia Flyers, another Cup favourite, were 0-3 out of the gate before a 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers.
Part of the Kings and Flyers troubles can be traced to injuries, Los Angeles losing defenseman Matt Greene for the season while Philadelphia forward Scott Hartnell is set sit out two months with a broken foot.
Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Downie could also be gone for the season with a knee injury while Toronto will have to get by without Lupul, who ranked second among the Maple Leafs in goals (25) and points (67) last season and will be sidelined for a minimum of six weeks with a broken forearm.
"We didn't count on losing Lupul but these things happen and as you go on the fly you have to make adjustments with your personnel," said Carlyle. "I don't think you can revamp or change dramatically your line combinations.
"We had two different teams playing, the one that played last night and the one that played today were two different ends of the spectrum.
"We just didn't have it." (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)