DALLAS — It had been five days since the Islanders last played and this wasn’t even the league-mandated “bye week,” which they had at the beginning of January.
The difference, Doug Weight noted: “We couldn’t practice during that five-day break.”
So perhaps this layoff, which ended with a game here against the trade deadline-remodeled Stars on Thursday, did not present the same challenge as the one two months ago did. The Islanders entered that break after clubbing the Jets, 6-2, in Winnipeg on Dec. 31; they reconvened in Denver and scored two goals total in back-to-back defeats to the Avalanche and Coyotes, the two bottom teams in the league.
Much has changed since then, of course. Weight has taken over for Jack Capuano, the Islanders had gone 14-7-2 since that lost weekend in January and they are in the thick of the chase for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth. All those factors have the Islanders viewing this latest break and the 7-0 drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jackets that preceded it far differently than they saw the last break.
“We’ve done a good job of keeping our confidence high, especially after losses,” Thomas Hickey said of the Islanders, who entered Thursday night 6-0-2 after a regulation loss since mid-December. “Whether it was 7-1, 7-0 or 1-0, a loss is a loss and it’s important to keep it to one. Doug’s done a great job of really understanding the room and he knew after [Saturday] we didn’t need to watch every play or break it all down. We’re a mature enough group to know that was unacceptable and we can’t do it again.”
That shutout in Columbus was the worst loss of the season for the Islanders, who have lost only five in regulation (12-5-2) with Weight at the helm but have had some of their most dismal defeats in that span. There was a 7-1 loss to the Leafs in Toronto on Valentine’s Day and a 3-0 shutout in Ottawa the week before to go with Saturday’s beatdown.
There was a pattern in all three of those losses: The Islanders had some bad luck early, then didn’t show enough fight to keep it competitive.
But as that 6-0-2 record shows, those losses have not lingered. The Islanders followed the Ottawa shutout by beating the Avs at home the next night. Two nights after losing in Toronto, they outworked the Rangers in Brooklyn for a win.
“Maybe you get slapped in the face with a fish a little bit, you get complacent,” Weight said. “You try to keep your awareness of those things coming. We know now, not playing for five days, this is a crucial game. Teams around you are winning, so we have to win. I’ve already felt it this morning a little bit and it’s a good feeling. This is the biggest game of the year — we’ll say that probably the rest of the year.”
The importance of Thursday’s game showed in Weight’s choice of goaltender. Thomas Greiss, who was pulled after one period in Columbus on Saturday, got the nod against the Stars, who traded four regulars (forwards Patrick Eaves, Lauri Korpikoski and defensemen Jordie Been and Johnny Oduya) before Wednesday’s trade deadline.
The Isles have a quick turnaround to fly and face the red-hot Blackhawks on Friday in Chicago. J-F Berube likely gets the call there in a game that will be a tough test for the Islanders no matter who is in net. So the priority was Thursday and kicking off the second leg of this nine-game road trip with a win.
“That’s going to be a big one in Chicago,” Hickey said, “but all our focus is right here on this one. We’re not in a position to take anyone for granted.”