PITTSBURGH - They're in. Now it's time to get to work.
The Islanders earned their second playoff berth in three seasons Thursday night when the Panthers beat the Bruins, 4-2. It might not have been the way the Isles envisioned clinching after leading the Metro Division for the majority of the first five months of the season, but they hardly are picky after a 3-7-2 slide the past month.
That lowly recent record is undercut by only a couple of teams, one of them the Penguins, who are 3-8-2 in their last 13 and holding a one-point edge on the Bruins for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand. So Friday night's game still has plenty of meaning for the Islanders and the Penguins.
The Islanders want to stay ahead of the wild-card teams and keep their slim hopes alive for getting home-ice advantage in the opening round in a potential matchup with the Capitals. To do that, the Isles need to beat the Penguins and then the Blue Jackets at Nassau Coliseum Saturday, and have the Rangers beat the Capitals Saturday afternoon.
Friday night's game is enormously important for the Penguins. Win and they clinch their ninth straight postseason spot; lose, especially in regulation, and the Penguins need two points against the Sabres Saturday to get in. They then would be locked into facing either the Rangers or Canadiens in the opening round.
"It'll be a playoff game," John Tavares said. "That's the way to approach it. It's certainly a team we've gotten to know well the last few years."
From the ugly brawl in 2011 to the unpleasant playoff defeat in 2013, the Islanders and Penguins have grown to dislike each other. If the Islanders could deal a hurtful blow to the Penguins' playoff hopes, that would be quite a turnaround from the days of Penguins chairman Mario Lemieux publicly calling out the Islanders for conduct unbecoming an NHL team.
The Penguins are coming into the game in terrible health. Evgeni Malkin returned last week after missing time, but defensemen Kris Letang, Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot are out. The Penguins might have to face the Islanders with only 17 skaters if Nick Spaling is unable to play.
The Islanders are focused on only one thing: Winning out to give them the best playoff position possible. Perhaps they will approach it with relaxed minds now that they know they will be in the postseason.
"There's a lot at stake this time of year," Travis Hamonic said. "We're confident in here and we're excited for the challenge."
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