The playoff-bound Islanders are certainly slogging to the end of the regular season.
"We’ve got to be better," coach Barry Trotz said after a third straight loss to one of the East Division’s distant bottom-dwellers. "We’ve got to execute better. We have to wrap our minds around getting prepared for the playoffs not just waiting for it. Because it’s not a switch."
The Devils won, 2-1, on Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum despite generating few dangerous chances. It officially ended any faint hope the Islanders had of earning home-ice advantage in the postseason while spoiling Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac’s first chance to play against their former team since being acquired on April 7.
The teams play again Saturday night in what could be the final regular-season game at the Coliseum with UBS Arena at Belmont Park targeted to open in November.
"I have been playing with most of those guys for four or five years," said Palmieri, originally from Smithtown. "They played a good game tonight. I think, as a group, we just want to focus on getting to our game. So, we’ll find a way to do that Saturday."
The Islanders (31-17-6) were coming off back-to-back losses to the NHL-worst Sabres in Buffalo, 4-2 on Monday and a 4-3 shootout defeat on Tuesday. The season finale is this coming Monday in Boston and the Islanders are three points behind the third-place Bruins, who have played one fewer game.
Trotz has been resting some of his regulars — Jordan Eberle and defenseman Andy Greene got Thursday off — but made sure to have both ex-Devils in his lineup.
"It was a little weird in warmups seeing the guys on the other side but, after that, you get the nerves out and it was another hockey game," said Zajac, who played 1,024 games with the Devils. "We’re trying to get our game in order and prepare ourselves for the playoffs. You look over the last few games and we just haven’t been complete enough in some areas and for 60 minutes."
Neither impending unrestricted free agent has had a productive start to what could be their brief runs with the Islanders.
Zajac has one goal and one assist in his first 12 games while also being a healthy scratch three times. Palmieri has one goal and two assists in 15 games. Certainly, more was expected after the Islanders spent their first-round pick in this year’s draft, plus a conditional fourth-round pick in 2022 and two minor-leaguers to acquire them with captain Anders Lee out for the season.
"[Palmieri] was a guy who was brought in probably for an offensive role," Trotz said. "His game has got some hardness to it. One of the best things I can say to him is, ‘Worry about playing the game hard and the right way and don’t worry about the stats. Those things will come around.' Hopefully he’ll break out for us."
While the two ex-Devils struggle to produce, Anthony Beauvillier continued his hot streak with his fifth goal in five games, tying the game at 1 at 5:35 of the second period as defenseman Scott Mayfield’s feed deflected off his leg past Mackenzie Blackwood (32 saves).
But the Devils regained a 2-1 lead at 15:31 of the second period with Palmieri and Zajac on the ice. Michael McLeod beat Semyon Varlamov (23 saves) from low in the slot.
Pavel Zacha’s one-timer had given the Devils a 1-0 lead at 14:11 of the first period.
"We’ve just got to get to our game," Mayfield said. "We’ve just got to find that identity. Being physical. Getting on the forecheck."
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