Islanders’ playoff hopes still not safe entering pivotal Rangers clashes

The Islanders were whooping and cheering at the start of Monday’s practice, giving a mock ovation as both goaltenders and a small group of players joined the rest of the team on the ice at Northwell Health Ice Center.

Ilya Sorokin raised his glove in mock salute.

The whole roster gave stick taps.

The Islanders could use two wins against the Rangers to solidify their playoff positioning. Michelle Farsi for the NY Post

This is a team coming towards the end of a taxing season.

The Islanders went through a coaching change in January.

They’ve lost more than they’ve won.

And they’ve lost a disproportionate number of dramatic, emotional games in the final minutes.

That has some weight.

To finally feel good about themselves, on the heels of a four-game winning streak which had them in a two-point lead for third place in the Metropolitan Division as of Monday morning with five games left in the season, feels pretty, pretty good.

“I think it’s like this when you’re winning,” Jean-Gabriel Pageau told The Post. “We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, good opportunity to keep climbing up the standings, keep our spot in the playoffs. … Keep winning games, keep playing the same way, keep playing a full 60 minutes. I think that’s our mindset, been working well lately. So obviously, the vibe is pretty good right now.”

At the same time, the Islanders are anything but safe.

One loss to the Rangers on Tuesday in the first of two Battles of New York this week that will carry mammoth implications for both sides would feel just as terrible as four wins felt good.

After Pittsburgh lost in overtime to the Maple Leafs on Monday night, the Islanders continued to lead the pack of five competitors that also includes Pittsburgh, Detroit, Washington and Philadelphia with 85 points.

No one, however, had fewer than 83, and the Islanders’ 26 regulation wins is the fewest of the five.

The Rangers, meanwhile, are fighting for their first Presidents’ Trophy since 2015 and the No. 1 overall seed, with a three-point cushion on the Bruins and both sides having four games left to play.

This is not merely a matter of pride, but of avoiding the Lightning in the first round in a rematch of the 2022 conference finals that Tampa Bay won in six games.

The Blueshirts won both of the first two matches between these sides, first in a razor-tight 6-5 overtime game at MetLife that the Islanders led 4-1 before falling apart in the third period, then in a far less memorable 5-2 victory at the Garden in which the Islanders never appeared competitive.

The Rangers and Islanders will meet two more times before the regular season ends. Robert Sabo for the NY Post

“I thought that the game we lost in overtime, we were moving faster,” Islanders coach Patrick Roy said. “We moved the puck faster, we played faster, we were north. Compared to the last game where we had a few turnovers. … If we want to have success against these guys, we need to move the puck well. We need to move the puck north and we need to keep our game very simple.”

Nothing about this winning streak has pointed to dominance on the Islanders’ part.

They have cut down on mistakes, defended hard, put forth a consistent effort and gotten immense goaltending from Semyon Varlamov, who will be in net Tuesday night following a 41-save shutout against Nashville.

Matt Martin fight the Rangers’ Matt Rempe during the first Islanders-Rangers meeting this season. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

The joke following the 2-0 win over the Predators was that the Islanders played Barry Trotz hockey in the third to close down a lead, but it’s hard to imagine Trotz being thrilled by allowing 20 shots and eight high-danger chances in over a period that was spent almost exclusively in the defensive zone.

Still, the grind has amped up a notch.

So have the vibes.

“The energy is better and the confidence is better,” Matt Martin told The Post. “That just leads to playing better hockey as well. You try to harness and hang onto this as long as you can, obviously.”

Long enough, the Islanders hope, to see an X next to their name in the standings.


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