Islanders' tougher schedule a challenge and an opportunity
Granted, there are no easy games in the NHL. But the fact remains that the Islanders' last three matches — all losses — were to teams outside the postseason picture and their next seven are against teams currently holding a playoff spot.
The question is how much damage the Islanders mustering only two points against the Canucks, Canadiens and Senators ultimately does to their playoff hopes.
“We have an opportunity coming up here very shortly to play teams that we’re even with, neck and neck with or just somewhat trailing,” coach Lane Lambert said after Tuesday's loss to the Senators. “I think it’s a good opportunity for us. I do welcome it.”
That starts Friday against the Penguins at UBS Arena, and the Islanders also play at Pittsburgh on Monday.
The Islanders (27-23-7) are ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Capitals, who have played one fewer game, for the second wild-card spot. The Penguins, who have played four fewer games, are two points ahead in the first wild-card spot.
“I don’t think we’re really focusing on a tough stretch,” defenseman Noah Dobson said. “I think every night is a tough night. You’re playing good teams, especially this time of the year. Teams are desperate. We look at it as a great opportunity Friday to play a good team, a division rival, at home and try and get a win and build on that and move on to the next one.”
The Islanders have three games remaining against both the Penguins and Capitals, so they still somewhat control their own destiny. But only if they start winning consistently.
Their three-game losing streak has dropped their record since Jan. 1 to 6-9-5. That includes going 1-3 in overtimes and 0-2 in shootouts, including Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Senators. That’s five crucial points they did not earn.
“We need to be better,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “I think sometimes when we are in a tough spot like that against tough matchups, sometimes we’re able to find it. It’s a stretch where we’re getting late in the year and every single point matters.”
The Islanders also play on Saturday in Boston, where the NHL-leading Bruins are 22-2-3 at TD Garden.
“We need to go now,” Pulock said. “We can’t wait any longer. There are teams around us winning. We need to find a way to get winning.
“There are just moments where we need to be more desperate and need to be on top of our toes the whole time and not sit back and wait. I think we’re getting caught a little sitting back a little.”
Notes & quotes: The Islanders, as part of their 50th anniversary, announced a $50,000 donation to Ice Hockey in Harlem, which offers free hockey instruction to more than 175 children ages 4-18. Earlier this season, the Islanders also made a $27,000 donation to the program to honor four-time Stanley Cup winner John Tonelli, whose No. 27 is retired by the team.