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At long last, Islanders get back to work

Jordan Eberle #7 of the New York Islanders

Jordan Eberle #7 of the New York Islanders celebrates his third period goal against the New Jersey Devils at NYCB Live on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. Credit: Jim McIsaac

One of the oddities in this odd NHL season being played amid the COVID-19 pandemic is the difference between home and away games.

That is, there is virtually none without fans in the buildings.

"It’s the same," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said before Saturday night’s game against the Penguins at Nassau Coliseum. "I know our record doesn’t indicate that but, for the most part, it’s the same. You’re familiar with the use of the boards a little bit and it’s more normal being at home than on the road. But it’s not much different."

That seems sad.

"It is," Trotz said. "That’s just what it is right now in the world. You get a big hit, you get a roar, you get some momentum, you score a goal. That’s not there so you’ve got to create your own excitement.

"It’s sort of getting used to it, that it’s just quiet all the time. I think when we get fans back, it will be over the top. It’ll be nice if we eventually get to that point, which we will."

Saturday’s game marked just the third home game for the Islanders (3-4-2). It was supposed to be the conclusion of a three-game homestand but Tuesday and Thursday’s games against the Sabres were postponed with that team having five players and 61-year-old coach Ralph Krueger — who tested positive — on the NHL’s COVID protocol list as of Friday.

The Islanders won their first two home games — 1-0 over the Bruins on Jan. 18 and 4-1 over the Devils three nights later. But they were coming off an 0-3-2 road trip to face the Penguins and had not played since a 4-3 overtime loss in Philadelphia on Sunday.

The Penguins, too, were coming off an unexpected break in their schedule after home games against the Devils — who had 17 players on the NHL COVID protocol list as of Friday — were postponed on Tuesday and Thursday. The Penguins’ last game was Monday’s 3-1 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

"You have a week off, you get re-energized mentally and physically," right wing Jordan Eberle said. "We had some good days of practice. Got some things worked out. It almost feels like Game No. 1 again."

Eberle said other players have mentioned the lack of differences between home and away games.

"We haven’t played enough at the Coliseum for me to get a grasp on it," Eberle said. "I’ve heard other guys talk about it around the league. You jump out to an early lead. A lot of times, especially at the Coliseum, we have the fans to ride us through it and continue the momentum. There isn’t that so you score a goal and, a lot of times, you’ve got to get mentally ready to go again right away because you can’t ride that wave that you get from the home crowd."

Saturday marked the start of a stretch of 12 of the next 18 games at home for the Islanders.

They dropped into last place in the East Division while unexpectedly idle this week but entered Saturday’s game just three points behind the fourth-place Penguins. Four of the division’s eight teams will qualify for the playoffs.

Perhaps playing at home, even without the home crowd, can help the Islanders make up the ground.

"You want to get off to a good start and grab those points early on," defenseman Nick Leddy said. "But, you know, we dug ourselves a hole. We’ve just got to focus one game at time and then start getting some points."

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