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Islanders face challenge of divisional foes

Calvin de Haan defends against Chris Conner #23

Calvin de Haan defends against Chris Conner #23 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period of a game at Nassau Coliseum. (Dec. 3, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

PHILADELPHIA -- The Islanders have kept their season alive with a 10-4-2 run in the last month, and after being out of the playoff chase before the end of 2013, they've gotten back to at least the fringe of the Metropolitan Division playoff conversation.

Now comes the hard part.

Starting with Saturday's game here against the Flyers, the Islanders begin a stretch of seven of their next nine games within the division -- the next two against the Flyers, three against the Rangers (including the Stadium Series outdoor game at Yankee Stadium) and one each against the Penguins and Capitals.

The Islanders are a combined 2-5-1 against those teams and 3-10-3 overall in the division, a record that must be reversed for the Islanders to have any shot to make up ground. They entered Friday night's games seven points behind the fourth-place Caps for the final wild-card spot.

The Islanders also will have to kick off this stretch without Travis Hamonic, who was sent home while the team was in Tampa because of a suspected concussion. Jack Capuano made a bold move on Thursday with half of his top defense pair out, choosing to have rookies Calvin de Haan and Matt Donovan take on the Lightning's top line.

"I thought Dono and I did a decent job," said de Haan, who logged 20:06 of even-strength ice time and got some power- play time as well. "The coaches showed a lot of trust in us and it's an honor to be out there against the other team's best forwards. We're just trying to play a simple game."

It was Donovan's best game of the 27 he's played this season. He played a career-high 21:15, had a career-best five shots on goal and, buoyed by the steadiness de Haan has brought to just about every game he's played since his recall from Bridgeport, looked far more confident than he has before.

That pair may get the call to match up against Claude Giroux Saturday, part of a tougher assignment overall for the Islanders. They've dropped a pair of 5-2 games to the Flyers this season. Both came during the 9-19-5 start to the season, and the Islanders, to a man, feel they've put those ugly games behind them.

"We had to be a little careful [on Thursday]," Frans Nielsen said after the 2-1 shootout win over the Lightning. "We gave up some chances, but we played a pretty good defensive game. That's the way we need to play."

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