Only 20 games remain on the Islanders’ schedule after Monday night’s rematch in Pittsburgh. During a normal regular season, they would be entering their playoff push with the associated hand-wringing over wins and losses affecting positioning.
But, in this shortened, 56-game season played solely against divisional foes, it’s been like that since Day One.
"It’s been like that since the first game because every game seems to be a four-pointer and have ramifications, positive or negative, for your hockey team," Isles coach Barry Trotz said before Monday’s game. "You’re right, in the past, with 20 games to go, everybody gets the charts. Who’s playing who? The percentages. But 0.0 (%) on our end and I don’t think across the league that’s happening a whole lot."
The Islanders conclude a four-game road trip and two-game series in Pittsburgh after the Penguins scored the first five goals and won, 6-3, on Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena. Monday marks the eighth and final game between the teams.
"We knew going into the season that every game was going to be huge in the standings," defenseman Adam Pelech said. "We definitely look at the standings and see how competitive it is at the top. I think it’s a little bit of extra motivation."
The Islanders enter Monday’s game two points ahead of the third-place Penguins in the East Division but trailing the first-place Capitals by two points. The Capitals also have two games in hand on both the Islanders and Penguins after Monday.
The top four teams in each of the four divisions will qualify for the playoffs and, with the first two rounds also being played within the division, there’s a chance the Islanders and Penguins could meet in the postseason.
"You’ve got to take it one game at a time, especially the way that this year is set up," Casey Cizikas said. "You’re playing the same teams over and over again, so each game is crucial. If you’re worrying about what the Washington Capitals are doing when we have a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, you’re going to be in trouble. We’ve just got to focus on what we can do. Put our best foot forward and then move on to the next one. That’s been our mentality the entire year."
The Islanders entered Monday with a 2-3-2 mark against the Penguins. Four of those games had been decided by one goal but the Penguins dominated two of the games in Pittsburgh. The Islanders lost, 4-1, on Feb. 18 as the Penguins held a 3-0 lead in the third period. And the Islanders’ loss on Saturday was marked by ill-timed penalties, loose defensive play and less-than-stellar goaltending.
If the Islanders do meet the Penguins again in the playoffs – a team they swept in the first round in 2019 – they must do a better job containing captain Sidney Crosby, defenseman Kris Letang and top-line right wing Bryan Rust.
Rust had a hat trick on Saturday. Crosby had three goals and six assists in the first seven games against the Islanders and entered Monday with 39 goals and 83 assists in 74 career games against the Islanders. Letang has four goals and five assists in the first seven games against the Islanders.
"They’re both great players," Pelech said about Crosby and Letang. "They’ve had some success against us. I don’t watch enough of their other games to know what level they’re playing against us compared to any other team. But I know, against us, they’ve been good. They’re always a handful. Those are two guys that we definitely need to limit their chances offensively."
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