RALEIGH, N.C. — The Islanders are hanging on to the cliff of playoff contention by their fingertips now, but it beat the alternative after another night living on the edge.
Their latest improbable reprieve came when they defeated the Hurricanes, 3-0, on Thursday night then immediately turned their attention to critical games in Boston and Toronto.
The first did not go their way. While the Islanders still were showering, the Senators defeated the Bruins, 2-1, in a shootout. Once that game went to overtime, the Sens had the one point they needed to leave the Islanders behind.
All that mattered then was a game between the Lightning and Maple Leafs that was entering the third period — with Tampa Bay ahead, 2-1 — as coach Doug Weight spoke to reporters, then quickly excused himself to watch.
The Islanders needed the Maple Leafs to lose, and that they did, when the Lightning scored twice in the third to win, 4-1.
Net result: The Maple Leafs have 93 points and the Islanders 90 with two games apiece remaining. The Lightning also has 90 points with two left.
One road requires the Islanders to beat the Devils on Saturday and the Senators Sunday while the Maple Leafs lose both to the Penguins and Blue Jackets, with at least one of those losses coming in regulation time.
But for that math to work out, the Islanders would need to win both of their games in regulation or overtime, enabling them to pass the Maple Leafs in the regulation-and-overtime-wins tiebreaker if both finish with 94 points.
That reality could make for some complicated strategizing for Weight. In theory, it might benefit the Islanders to pull their goalie in overtime to secure a win before the shootout for tiebreaker purposes.
Trouble is, that logic could depend on results from elsewhere. Both Saturday and Sunday, the Maple Leafs’ games begin (and presumably end) one hour after the Islanders’, so Weight won't know the full landscape.
The Islanders could avoid ROW concerns if the Maple Leafs lose both of their games in regulation time. That way, the Islanders would finish with 94 points if they win two, and the Maple Leafs would be stuck at 93.
But wait: the Lightning still loom with 90 points and two to play. They have 36 ROWs to the Islanders’ 37. More complications could ensue there, including the remote possibility of a three-way tie.
Unlikely? Certainly. But the Islanders will take it, given that a week earlier they were left for dead amid sluggish play, key injuries and daunting standings math.
They essentially needed to win their last six games to have any shot, and already have won four of them — their first four-game winning streak of the season.
“I think it’s a credit to the guys in the locker room,” Anders Lee said, before the result from Toronto was known. “We are a resilient group and we’ve fought out of a lot of stuff this year and we’re not going to go down easy.”
Said Andrew Ladd, “We tried to stick with it, especially losing the personnel that we’ve lost. We had guys step in and I think we’ve simplified our game a little bit.”
Ladd added, “The biggest factor honestly has been Jaro. Jaro has been a rock back there for us.”
That would be Jaroslav Halak, who earlier this season spent nearly three months in the minor leagues and now has started and won four consecutive games, allowing a total of four goals. He had 29 saves Thursday night.
“I just want to go game to game,” he said. “I’m not thinking about pressure or no pressure.”
The Islanders came out looking very much like the team with more at stake, scoring twice in the first five minutes, at one point building a 9-2 lead in shots on goal and taking a 2-0 edge into the first intermission.
Playing before an extremely sparse crowd at PNC Arena — the announced attendance was 9,769 — the visitors scored 1:27 in when a shot by Brock Nelson got behind Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack off the skate of Carolina’s Jordan Staal.
Thomas Hickey, a defenseman playing his second career game at left wing for the injury-riddled Islanders, nearly got his stick on the puck as it slid toward the line, but Nelson got the scoring credit.
At 4:39, Scott Mayfield backhanded the rebound of a Lee shot over Lack for his first goal in 20 games.
The period ended with Victor Rask serving a double-minor for high-sticking Nelson. It paid off when former Hurricane Ladd wristed the puck over Lack’s right shoulder from the right circle 39 seconds into the second.
Weight credited his players for their fortitude in difficult circumstances. “They wrapped their heads around it and really grasped it,” he said.
The Islanders still are a long shot. But they still have a shot.
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