Playoff-bound Isles jockeying for position
Visit Florida Thursday with division and home-ice still in play
With two games remaining on their regular-season slate, including Thursday night’s visit to Florida, the playoff-bound New York Islanders are still in the hunt for a Metropolitan Division title and home ice in their opening round series.
They just need to step up their intensity a bit if they hope to achieve either one of those goals.
“They had a lot of desperation in their game,” head coach Barry Trotz said of the Toronto Maple Leafs after they come into Uniondale, N.Y, on Monday night and edged New York, 2-1, to clinch a postseason berth of their own.
“We needed a little more in ours.”
The Isles, who were out to complete a three-game season-series sweep of the Leafs and former team captain John Tavares, instead had their two-game winning streak snapped and missed a golden opportunity to move further ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York’s likely opponent when the playoffs begin next week.
Entering their showdown with the Panthers, the Isles (46-27-7, 99 points) are two points clear of the third-place Penguins in the bid for home ice in the opening round.
They also trail defending Stanley Cup champion Washington, Trotz’s former team, by three points for the top spot in the division and will visit the Capitals in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
But a win against the Leafs Monday night could have given the Isles a big leg up on the Pens while making Saturday’s tilt in our nation’s capital a battle for the division crown.
“It sucks. I think we could have played a bit better,” ceded Isles goaltender Robin Lehner after stopping 36 shots against Toronto. “It was one we wanted to win for sure.”
Tavares, who left the Isles after nine brilliant seasons to ink a seven-year pact with his hometown team last summer, scored his career-high 46th goal of the season, earning a measure of revenge in front of the crowd that jeered him throughout his initial return to Long Island back in late February.
It’s not out of the question that the Isles will see Tavares again in the playoffs, but first they must optimize their remaining opportunities to make their postseason run a bit easier.
New York has not had home-ice advantage in a playoff series since 1988, and Trotz knows the importance of having a potential Game 7 at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, where opponents have to deal with a championship-hungry crowd.
“They’re very loud,” Trotz told Newsday of the sellout crowd of 13,917 at NYCB Live Monday.
“When we were on the visitors’ side, which is not the most elegant side to be on, the building was shaking before the game. If you’re leading the game, you’ve got to duck the odd beer here and there and keep dry.”
Though they remain the NHL’s stingiest defensive team, yielding 2.38 goals per contest, the Isles have struggled mightily on the power play this season, getting their first goal in their last 33 chances with the man advantage on home ice Monday as Jordan Eberle ended the drought with a third-period tally.
New York ranks 22nd in the league in goals per game (2.74) and 29th in power-play goals with 33 out of 223 chances this year.
Trotz has molded them into a team that relies on winning tightly played, close games, which are prevalent during the postseason.
“The strength of our team this year has been working as a group, everyone buying into the system, learning how to play close games and play good defense,” Lehner said.
But the occasional blowout, like Saturday’s 5-1, playoff-clinching win over Buffalo at the Coliseum, can make life a little easier for a team that has grinded its way back into the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
How much longer they get to grind this year might come down to how well they play out these remaining two games.
“We still have a few higher expectations, hopefully get home ice,” team captain Anders Lee said on Sirius XM Radio Tuesday. “[It was a] little bit of a missed opportunity (Monday), but a couple of games left, we’ll see what happens.”
Isle Have Another: As the NHL announced two months ago, the Coliseum will serve as the Isles’ home ice for the opening round of the playoffs, but if New York wins just its second postseason series since 1993, the team will move back into Downtown’s Barclays Center, where it has not played since Feb. 16. New York actually finished with a better record at Barclays (12-6-2) then it did at the Coliseum (12-7-2) this season. … The Isles announced Wednesday that they signed Ohio State standout Mason Jobst to a two-year, two-way, entry-level contract, beginning next season. The 25-year-old Jobst spent four years with the Buckeyes and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist during his senior campaign after amassing a team-high 36 points (17 goals and 19 assists) this year.
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