The Islanders and their fans have plenty of reasons to be riding high right now. When the dust settled from the Isles’ long road trip on Monday morning, they found themselves in third place in the Metropolitan Division, well behind the first-place Capitals but just three points behind the Rangers for second with three games in hand. And the Rangers have given their crosstown rivals no reason to be intimidated; the Isles have won all three matchups with the Blueshirts this season, including a confidence-boosting 6-4 win on Sunday.
But the Isles’ skaters understand that they can’t get too full of themselves at this point in the campaign.
“You don’t take anything lightly,” captain John Tavares told reporters after practice on Monday, “We lost home ice [to the Capitals] last year…we understand that goes right down to the very end. [Home ice] is significant any year, that’s what you always play hard for. I think for us, we would have loved to have a Game 7 on our home ice last year.”
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“You have to make sure you keep staying with the pack and winning as many games as you can,” Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic told the press on Monday.
But will that 6-1 road trip result go to their heads? It could be fool’s gold. That trip included stops against bottom-feeders like the Flames, Senators and Jets. Their upcoming schedule will be much more difficult.
A seven-games-in-twelve-days marathon began on Tuesday against the Penguins (a 2-1 victory), and the competition gets no easier. There are road dates involved with Nashville, Dallas and Tampa Bay, and the Panthers will pay a visit to the Barclays Center before that spate of contests concludes. There’s also another game against the Penguins coming up on Mar. 15, and it’s crucial that the Islanders stay ahead of them lest they be relegated to a wild-card team eligible to draw the Capitals in the first round.
The fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck has delivered in spades all season, and particularly of late, but the Isles will need their secondary scorers like Brock Nelson and Nikolay Kulemin, who have been on worrisome cold streaks, to step up.
They will also need Jaroslav Halak to work on his consistency. He made 31 saves and allowed just one goal against Pittsburgh on Tuesday night but was unfortunately forced to leave late due to an apparent groin injury (his status is unclear as of Wednesday morning). However, that came on the heels of a shaky four goals on 26 shots performance against the Rangers on Sunday. And that was his first start after a mediocre month of February in which his save percentage was just .905, his worst mark in any month this season. Thomas Greiss has been a serviceable backup this year, but come playoff time it’s important to have your number one option in net out there every night and playing well.