Islanders ready to face hardest part of schedule as playoff push intensifies

Last week, for the Islanders, was the easy part.

Yes, really.

Those hypertension-inducing wins, all of which came down to the final minutes or overtime, against the Flyers, Blackhawks and Blue Jackets, represented some of the easiest opposition left on the schedule.

Maybe the Islanders could have survived without amassing a full six out of six possible points, but maximizing that opportunity was a huge box to check and the Islanders came close to doing so perfectly — getting all six points, but giving one to the Flyers, which is currently keeping Philadelphia ahead of the Islanders in the standings thanks to the regulation wins tiebreaker, by allowing that game to get to overtime.

New York Islanders defenseman Noah Dobson celebrates scoring a goal with defenseman Alexander Romanov in the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

This week?

This is the hard part.

In their next four games, which start when former coach Barry Trotz returns to Long Island as general manager of the Predators on Saturday night, the Islanders face the Rangers twice as well as a Nashville outfit that has lost just two games in regulation since mid-February.

Thursday’s game against Montreal is the only respite on paper, but the Canadiens have beaten the Islanders twice this season.

The Islanders started Friday in a playoff spot and spent the night watching and rooting against the Red Wings, Flyers and Capitals.

Barry Trotz returns to Long Island as general manager of the Predators. AP

But despite the immense amount of help that each team in this race has handed out to the others, it will be down to the Islanders to take their fate into their own hands as the season barrels to a close.

“This group’s been in this position before. We know how to go about business this time of year,” Noah Dobson said after the 4-2 win over Columbus on Thursday.

“We know each game’s a different challenge. We gotta find ways to win each night. The last couple games, tie games going into the third, we found ways.”

Whether you see the last three games as the Islanders struggling to put away not-great opposition or as a sign that things are finally coming together for them is an entirely subjective question.

Naturally, the Islanders believe the latter.

“Just keep staying positive, I think that’s where we’re at right now,” Mat Barzal said. “Doesn’t matter what happens, we’re just sticking together and we’ve played good hockey, but I still think we have another gear that we can play to. That’s what we’re building. I think these games, especially with what’s on the line, it’s bringing the best out of everyone, it seems. That’s good to know that we got guys in here that are gamers and willing to play in those big moments.”

New York Islanders right wing Simon Holmstrom (10) celebrates his goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during the third period at UBS Arena. Thomas Salus-USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, the Islanders found themselves in a similar position, needing to close the season out strong to beat out the Penguins for a wild-card spot.

Thanks in part to Pittsburgh losing to the hapless Blackhawks on home ice, the Isles had a chance to clinch in Game 82 and did so by beating the Canadiens.

This season might be headed on a similar course, with none of the Isles, Flyers, Red Wings, Capitals and Penguins — who have played themselves back into the race — able to gain any separation.

Those five teams, just two of whom will make the playoffs, were separated by two points in the standings before Friday’s games started.

“It does feel like a playoff game every night for us,” Barzal said.

That’s because it is.

“Fighting for our season right now,” he added. “These are the best games of the year, really. This is why you play.”


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