John Tavares looks on during a game against the Detroit...

John Tavares looks on during a game against the Detroit Red Wings at Nassau Coliseum. (Nov. 16, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Pittsburgh -- There are two words the Islanders hoped never to hear again in describing their team, words that are now looming close -- as close as the result from Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Last place.

If the Flyers beat the Sabres on Thursday, they will leapfrog the Isles and Blue Jackets, leaving the Isles tied at 19 points with Columbus but with fewer regulation/overtime wins. That means last in the Metropolitan Division; the division has a new name, but the Isles have resided in the basement of their division for a lot of days the past six seasons, and they wanted to believe they were done with all that.

The five-game road losing streak they bring here for Friday’s game with the Penguins, followed by a Saturday game in Philly, is evidence that the bad, old days are not so old after all. The Isles will almost surely have Thomas Vanek back for Friday’s game, but will that be enough to turn this around?

As I noted in my hard-copy story on Thursday, the Isles were right around this same record after 22 games last season. They were 9-11-2 after beating the Senators in a shootout -- a game in which they got the lead late and coughed it up late -- and sat in 11th in the East, last in the Atlantic Division, two points behind the eighth-place Rangers.

They got on a roll after that, going 15-6-5 over the final 26 games, buoyed by Evgeni Nabokov’s solid play in goal and a commitment to preserving leads and being smart all over the ice.

So change can happen, and drastic change at that. This is not the same team, even though a great many of the players are the same. As noted in Wednesday’s blog, John Tavares is trying to lead without any veteran support (and clearly this team misses Mark Streit’s quiet, positive attitude) thanks to Nabokov’s and Lubomir Visnovsky’s injuries; Garth Snow will not make a shakeup trade just for trading’s sake and Jack Capuano is hamstrung by having to send the same six defensemen out for every game.

This will be difficult for sure. By the time Visnovsky is ready to return, the Isles could be a mess.

Or it could be a watershed moment for this group, where they remind themselves that they didn’t care who was going well, who their opponent was or what the score was down the stretch last season.

Certainly a difficult test awaits on Friday. By the time the Isles take the ice for their morning skate here, they may be the last-place Islanders once again. Maybe that will deliver the needed wakeup call.

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