The Islanders went 6-1 on their road trip but currently face two dramatically different postseason scenarios with five weeks left in the regular season. They are basically equal points away from owning home ice in the first round of the playoffs as they are to a wild-card berth.
With Sunday’s victory over the Rangers, the third-place Islanders are three points behind the second-place Blueshirts in the Metropolitan Division. The division-leading Capitals have a commanding point advantage, so the Islanders’ best possible outcome would be overtaking the Rangers.
However, the the Islanders are only three points ahead of the fourth-place Penguins, who visit Barclays Center on Tuesday. The Penguins are in wild-card territory, something the Islanders want no part of — unless there was no other alternative to postseason.
“You have to make sure you keep staying with the pack and winning as many games as you can,’’ Travis Hamonic said after Monday’s practice at Northwell Health Ice Center. “Maybe before, when you go on a run like we been on, you gain some more ground in the standings. But that’s just how tight it is right now.’’
John Tavares added: “You don’t take anything lightly. We lost home ice [to the Capitals] last year,’’ by a tiebreaker. “We understand that goes right down to the very end,” Tavares said. “It’s part of making the playoffs. [Home ice] is significant any year, that’s what you always play hard for. How important is it? I mean, I think for us, we would have loved to have a Game 7 on our home ice last year. We’re still trying to solidify getting to the playoffs.”
The Penguins have a revitalized Sidney Crosby. After accumulating only six goals and 13 assists in his his first 28 games, he has 22 and 53 over the last 37. He is sixth in the league with 66 points. Teammate Evgeni Malkin has 27 goals and 29 assists.
“Obviously, he got off to probably a start no one really expected, even himself,’’ Tavares said of Crosby. “But his track record is proven of what he’s been able to do in this league for a long time. So I think there was no doubt amongst players across the league and people involved in the game that he’d get back to the way he can play. Anytime you play them, you have to be aware of what he can do.’’
Jack Capuano said of the Penguins, “They’re highly skilled, they’re playing the best hockey I’ve seen any team play right now. When you get your top guys going like they got going now and they’re healthy, it’s going to be a real challenge for us.’’