The Islanders did a slew of good things Saturday night. Clinching a playoff berth was not among them, but in the aftermath of a well-earned 3-0 win over the lowly Sabres, the Isles would rather be playing well than watching the scoreboard.
Thanks to an early power-play goal and some excellent work on the once-moribund penalty kill, the Islanders finished Saturday night two points from clinching a playoff berth. More importantly, they were back in second place in the Metro Division, a point ahead of the Capitals, who lost to Ottawa in overtime.
That means the Islanders hold home-ice advantage in the opening round in their hands. And a few more efforts like Saturday night and they could be hosting Game 1 of a postseason series for the first time since 1988.
"There were a lot of good things for us in all three zones," said Brock Nelson, who snapped home his 20th of the season at 9:32 of the third to expand a 1-0 lead and allow the Isles and the sellout Coliseum crowd to breathe a little easier. "The penalty kill did the job again and the power play got us going."
Kyle Okposo's power-play strike at 6:37 of the first, a lucky-bounce wrister that deflected off Buffalo captain Brian Gionta's stick, down off the ice and past goaltender Andrey Makarov, put the Islanders up quickly after a strong start.
They peppered Makarov, making his NHL debut for the lottery-bound Sabres, with nine shots in the opening seven minutes but came away with only the one goal.
Jaroslav Halak (21 saves) had to stand tall toward the end of the first and then through a most crucial stretch late in the second. Brian Strait received a double minor when his stick clipped Philip Varone and drew blood; at the same time, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin were briefly sidelined with injuries and Cal Clutterbuck was in the locker room with an equipment issue, taking penalty-kill forwards away for stretches.
But the Islanders were strong, as they have been in a 15-game stretch in which they've killed off 33 of 34 power plays.
"I don't think we're doing anything differently. Maybe we've just found good chemistry," said Nikolay Kulemin, who deflected home Travis Hamonic's shot for the third Islanders goal at 13:13 of the third. "We keep working on the PK and finally it's going right for us."
The Isles will face the Flyers in Philadelphia on Tuesday, with a busy slate around them Sunday. The Senators will face the Leafs, and if they lose in regulation, the Isles will clinch a playoff berth. The Capitals (in Detroit) and Penguins (in Philadelphia) also play Sunday, games that will alter the Metro standings and give the Islanders a clearer picture of the points they need to collect in their final three games.
"If you would have said we'd be at 98 points and still battling . . . It's crazy what's going on in both conferences," coach Jack Capuano said. "I'm proud of the effort to this point and we just keep working. We can only control what we can control, and that's our effort and preparation."