Barry Trotz rather calmly shook hands with his staff on the bench as the Islanders players congregated on the ice, hugging in small groups, before raising their sticks to acknowledge their fans, who had chanted and cheered from the opening faceoff.
It was celebratory but subdued, and that businesslike mixture continued into their postgame dressing room.
After John Tavares left for the Maple Leafs, few foresaw this at the start of the season, other than the players themselves. But in a party-like atmosphere at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders left no doubt when it came to clinching their first playoff spot since 2016 as they earned a 5-1 win over the Sabres before a sellout crowd of 13,917.
“Because of the fact we’ve never been expected to do much, we just continue to pound away, and we’re going to keep going that way until someone has to come and pry it away from us,” Cal Clutterbuck said.
The Islanders (46-26-7) moved seven points ahead of the ninth-place Canadiens with three games remaining for each and remained three points behind the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals (47-24-8). They moved four points ahead of the third-place Penguins (42-25-11), who have one game in hand, as they try to secure home advantage in a playoff series for the first time since 1988.
The Isles clinched a playoff spot at the Coliseum for the first time since a 5-4 win over the Capitals on April 6, 2002. They clinched in March for the first time since 1990.
“It’s fulfilling because we know this group of players had a determined sort of attitude right from the get-go,” said Trotz, his voice hoarse after trying to shout instructions on the bench over the crowd noise. “They stayed with it. The strength of this team has been its backbone, not its wishbone, wishing for wins. We have to go and work for wins, and they have.”
Anthony Beauvillier scored twice and Robin Lehner stopped 31 shots. His bid for a sixth shutout was denied by Victor Olofsson’s power-play goal at 13:28 of the third period.
A besieged Carter Hutton, who kept it close for a while, made 33 saves for the Sabres (31-37-10), who are 3-16-3 since a 3-1 win over the Islanders in Buffalo on Feb. 12.
“We beat every good team in the league this year,” Lehner said. “I don’t see why we can’t do that in the playoffs the way we play, the way we buy in. We’re just going to go in and do our best and show up every night and see where it takes us.”
The Islanders translated the crowd’s energy into a dominant performance.
It was 9-1 in shots when Jordan Eberle knocked in Mathew Barzal’s rebound for a 1-0 lead at 7:41 of the first period. Beauvillier was denied on his first career penalty shot at 12:23 of the first period, but he did make it 2-0 at 8:20 of the second period with a wrist shot from the slot for his first goal in 12 games.
Rookie Michael Dal Colle, at the crease, made it 3-0 with 33.4 seconds left in the second. Defenseman Ryan Pulock skated easily around Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who had broken his stick, and made it 4-0 just 30 seconds into the third period. Beauvillier’s second goal pushed it to 5-0 at 6:07.
“It was a special night in the building,” Barzal said. “Not many people probably thought we’d be here.”