The Islanders haven’t assured themselves of any playoff matchup yet — it’s still between starting in Sunrise, Florida, or starting in Pittsburgh — but the players seemed far more concerned with how they’re playing heading into the postseason than whom they’ll be playing once they get there.
In winning their third straight game Thursday night and in sweeping a season series from the Rangers for the first time ever, the Islanders made it much more likely that they will face the red-hot Penguins in the opening round rather than the surprising but perhaps less imposing Panthers.
“Yeah, but Florida drilled us 6-1 at home and they had us down for 40 minutes last time we played them,” Frans Nielsen said after the 4-1 win over the Rangers. “There’s plusses and minuses to both. To me, the opponent doesn’t really matter.”
What matters to Nielsen and his teammates is the way the Islanders get to the finish line. The back-to-back impressive wins over the Lightning and Capitals earlier this week to clinch the Islanders’ third playoff berth in four seasons helped reverse a bad trend during the previous month. The Islanders had gone 0-5-1 in their previous six games against playoff-bound opponents, scoring all of eight goals in the process. But these last three wins looked a lot more like a team that isn’t content with getting in.
Last season, the Islanders clinched a playoff berth in Game 80, then lost in a shootout in the final game to lose home ice.
In 2012-13, the Isles went 0-1-2 in their last three to sink back to eighth and create a first-round matchup against the Penguins.
Now, even at the risk of facing the hottest team in the league in the Penguins, the Isles want to be ascending when the puck drops next week.
“I think maybe the last couple times, we were just happy to get in,” Nielsen said. “We’re hungrier now, I think. We want to be playing the right way and not let any bad habits creep in.”
That starts in goal, where Thomas Greiss was the star Thursday night. He made 36 saves in his second straight excellent outing, getting back to the confident way he played during the first 55 games.
“It was a great performance tonight and he should build off that,” coach Jack Capuano said. “He went through a stretch, I don’t want to say he was fatigued, but he needed to get away from the game for a few days. He did that and he’s been good.”
The Isles beat the Capitals with rookie Christopher Gibson in goal.
Now the Islanders have back- to-back games this weekend with a banged-up roster. If they win both, they will face the Penguins. If they lose both in regulation, they will face the Panthers. And there’s lots of variables in between.
With the Rangers playing their finale tomorrow afternoon, the Islanders will take the Barclays Center ice on Saturday night knowing exactly what they need to finish in each spot. The jockeying, the what-ifs all seem to be fodder for fans and scribes. The players want to finish strong.
“There’s a lot to play for, from Game 1 to Game 82,” John Tavares said. “We know how important it is to get every point you can.”