It was a struggle, just like this whole season has been for the Islanders.
But the Islanders managed to clinch an Eastern Conference wild-card spot in their regular-season finale with a 4-2 win over the out-of-contention but determined Canadiens in a playoff-like atmosphere at sold-out UBS Arena on Wednesday night.
Now the Islanders must wait until Thursday night to find out if they play the NHL-best Bruins or the Hurricanes in the first round.
“It never does [come easy], does it?” Zach Parise said. “We had to fight through a lot of things. A lot of important players injured. Sometimes you’ve got to tread water throughout the season and we did that. Hopefully we’ll have a full lineup for Game 1.”
They had ceded control of their playoff destiny with a 5-2 road loss to the Capitals on Monday
night only to regain it Tuesday night when the Penguins lost to visiting Chicago 5-2.
“This one feels good,” said Brock Nelson, who scored twice. “Different emotions today compared to yesterday after the Washington game.
“We worked extremely hard to give ourselves a chance. We had meetings back in January where we weren’t in a great spot [six points out of a playoff spot on Jan. 26]. We were probably counted out by some people. Everyone stuck with it.”
But not until Anders Lee’s power play goal at 16:01 of the third period — snapping an 0-for-18 man-advantage drought — could the crowd start to celebrate, chanting “We want playoffs,” which will be a UBS Arena first after last season’s playoff miss.
“It’s pretty gratifying at that moment,” coach Lane Lambert said of the final buzzer sounding. “It’s cliché, yes it’s the first step. But it’s a very difficult step. It’s a step that required 82 games. It doesn’t always require the full 82 but for us it did. I thought our group, from top to bottom, did a great job of grinding through it and finding a way to get to where we are now.”
The Islanders (42-31-9) have 93 points and currently hold the first wild-card spot. But if the Panthers, who have 92 points going into their season finale hosting the Hurricanes, can win, they would face the Metropolitan Division winner — either the Hurricanes or Devils. If the Panthers lose in overtime or a shootout, the Islanders own the second tiebreaker of regulation and overtime wins.
Ilya Sorokin, making his eighth straight start, stopped 17 shots, including just five in the third period as the Islanders took few chances trying to protect the lead.
Sam Montembeault made 31 saves for the Canadiens (31-44-6).
Nelson made it 3-1 as he deflected defenseman Noah Dobson’s point shot at 10:20 of the second period. But Nick Suzuki’s shorthanded goal as he beat rookie defenseman Samuel Bolduc up ice brought the Canadiens within one at 16:38 of the third period.
Bolduc was benched for the rest of the game.
The Islanders, who had allowed two goals in the first 63 seconds against the Capitals, fed off the crowd’s energy to start and Nelson opened the scoring off Kyle Palmieri’s feed to the left circle at 10:27 of the first period. But Dobson’s turnover turned into Rem Pitlick’s equalizer on a one-timer from the right circle off Jake Evans’ feed at 17:38.
Hudson Fasching, though, regained a 2-1 lead for the Islanders at 18:57 of the first period as he swatted in the rebound after Parise’s tip attempt hit the crossbar.
“The ups and downs of the last 48 hours has been crazy,” Fasching said. “To finally have it settled and we’re in the playoffs, it feels great.”