The Islanders faced the scenario confronting them in Buffalo — playing a team impacted by COVID-19 — once before this season.
So they knew they needed to take the lessons from their two losses to the Capitals last month into their two-game series against the Sabres on Monday and Tuesday nights at KeyBank Center.
Monday marked the first game for the Sabres since a 5-3 loss on Jan. 31 to the visiting Devils, who have yet to resume their season after a COVID outbreak. The Sabres went six straight days through Friday with nine players on the NHL’s COVID protocol list, and coach Ralph Krueger, 61, also tested positive.
"I don’t think you can really think about it," Islanders left wing Matt Martin said before the game. "You’ve got to approach it just like any other game. Play the same way we have over the last six games. They’re a good hockey team. Whatever their circumstances are right now, that’s fortunately not our concern."
Martin said the Islanders felt safe facing a team coming off a widespread COVID outbreak.
"There’s more protocols put into place in terms of when we’re at home," he said. "We’re pretty restricted overall when we’re on the road. They’ve tightened it up even more with cases going up with certain teams. The NHL has all their protocols in place. We’re just focused on playing a hockey game."
The Islanders entered this four-game road trip, including games in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Saturday nights, on a 3-0-3 streak after Saturday’s 4-2 win over the East Division-leading Bruins at Nassau Coliseum.
That streak started after they concluded an 0-3-2 road trip with two overtime losses in Philadelphia. That trip included a 3-2 loss in Washington on Jan. 26 on defenseman Justin Schultz’s goal with 26.4 seconds remaining in regulation and a 6-3 defeat two nights later as the Islanders blew a three-goal first-period lead.
The Capitals played those games without No. 1 goalie Ilya Samsonov, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov, all on the league’s protocol list at the time.
"We lost two games in Washington that are pretty uncharacteristic of us," Martin said. "It doesn’t really matter who’s on the other side, whether they have a full lineup or not."
Coach Barry Trotz said that was something he reinforced before Monday’s game.
"We have to get after these guys, get after these games," he said. "We’ve done a good job since that trip to sort of reestablish ourselves. We’ve moved up the standings a little bit. We’ve got to keep climbing. We can’t let these guys off the hook. Start with the jerseys rather than the faces in the jerseys. It’s a team sport."
Monday’s game marked the start of a stretch in which the Islanders will face the Sabres six times in their next 12 games.
The Sabres’ first two postponed games during their eventual two-week layoff were against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 2 and Feb. 4. Those games have been rescheduled for Feb. 22 and March 4.
The game on March 4 marks the start of three straight against the Sabres at the Coliseum, including games on March 6 and March 7.
"Game to game, things can change in terms of what happens in those games," Trotz said. "You get an opportunity to try and get some points every night. We’ll be familiar with the Sabres and they’re going to be very familiar with us. They’re a good hockey team. It’s going to be a battle. It’s almost like a playoff series."
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