BUFFALO — The Islanders have a choice to make over their final five games before summer recess, starting with a Saturday matinee against the Sabres at KeyBank Center.
Finish with a maximum effort, regardless of results, as the players and coach Barry Trotz have said the team has pledged to do. Or cheat the game, as Trotz said was the case in Thursday night’s 6-3 loss to the playoff-bound Rangers at UBS Arena.
Which way the Islanders (35-32-10), eliminated from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2018, respond against the last non-playoff team they’ll face will be telling. The Sabres (30-38-11) are missing the playoffs for the 11th straight season but have won three in a row and four of their last five.
“We take pride in playing good, hard hockey,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said after Thursday’s loss. “So that’s what we’re going to do the rest of the way. I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Of course, there is the fatigue factor for the Islanders, who did not practice on Friday. The loss to the Rangers marked the Islanders’ fifth game in eight days. Their final five games will be played over seven days. Under that grueling a schedule, they’re not all going to be Picassos.
And mailing in the performances at this point, in a season that started with Stanley Cup aspirations after back-to-back trips to the NHL semifinals, would not be shocking.
But even in the games when the legs are not spry, the Islanders want to be competitive.
“You have to engage physically,” coach Barry Trotz said. “You just can’t let people drive by you or hang on to the puck. Make plays. You’ve got to separate the man from the puck. You’ve got to be in that battle.”
It wasn’t just playing soft hockey at times against the Rangers that disturbed Trotz. It was straying from the defensive system that has helped the team to success over his tenure on Long Island.
“We have certain protocols in our own zone when you’re coming into D zone coverage,” Trotz said. “You can’t just go play shinny and run around and guess all over the ice. There are certain things that you have to do. That’s why it’s a system and if you’re not going to play the systematic way, then you put everybody else in jeopardy. I just thought we had some guys cheating the game.”
After facing the Sabres — who won 6-3 the last time the teams met in Buffalo on Feb. 15 — the Islanders host the Hurricanes, vying for the Metropolitan Division title, on Sunday afternoon. There’s a home-and-home series with the playoff-bound Capitals before the Islanders conclude the regular season against the two-time Cup-champion Lightning at UBS Arena on Friday night.
Other than a chance to play spoilers, the biggest intrigues for the Islanders are whether Brock Nelson reaches 40 goals for the first time in his career — he has 36 after scoring twice against the Rangers — or goalie Ilya Sorokin notches a team-record eighth shutout.
Notes & quotes: Defenseman Grant Hutton cleared waivers and was re-assigned to AHL Bridgeport.