The Islanders know they need to start truckin’ to have any hope of making the playoffs.
Coach Barry Trotz likened his team to "an 18-wheeler" when it’s playing well, with momentum built from four efficient lines, three solid defense pairs and good goaltending.
And that’s what the Islanders showed in Thursday night’s 4-1 win over the Sabres at UBS Arena after a 10-day layoff. Semyon Varlamov made 36 saves for his second win this season — and second straight — and Mathew Barzal had a goal and two assists after missing three games while in COVID-19 protocol.
"I watched some of the games [Wednesday] night with teams coming back," Trotz said. "You could see that certain teams hit walls. I thought we were pretty decent for the most part."
The Islanders (9-12-6) finished December a respectable 4-2-4 after an 0-8-0 skid but remain last in the eight-team Metropolitan Division.
"We know where we’re at in the standings right now," said defenseman Noah Dobson, whose slap shot from the right point capped the scoring at 11:43 of the third period. "We’re just trying to focus on each game and collecting points and keep building our game. We’ve been stringing a couple of good games the last few here."
The Islanders had not played since a 4-3 shootout loss to Vegas at UBS Arena on Dec. 19. There was the NHL’s scheduled holiday break but also four more postponements; the Islanders had home games against the Canadiens on Dec. 20, the Capitals on Dec. 23 and the Red Wings on Wednesday night, plus a scheduled game in Buffalo on Monday night, called off because of the leaguewide COVID-19 outbreak.
The Islanders have had six games postponed since Nov. 28.
Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson, Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman Sebastian Aho are in COVID-19 protocol for the Islanders, who added forwards Austin Czarnik and Michael Dal Colle to Thursday’s lineup from their taxi squad.
"It’s just nice to get back on track right away," said Barzal, who took a game-high eight shots without an attempt blocked or a missed shot and has two goals and 10 assists in his last seven games, with at least a point in each match. "We know we need to have a strong second half. To get the first one feels good."
Barzal opened the scoring with a rising wrist shot from the high slot over the glove of Malcolm Subban (28 saves) at 12:35 of the first period.
The Sabres (10-17-5) returned to action with a 4-3 loss to the visiting Devils on Wednesday night after going 11 days without a game, including a postponed match against the Islanders in Buffalo scheduled for Monday night.
The Sabres have six players in COVID-19 protocol, including forwards Jeff Skinner and Dylan Cozens, and assistant Matt Ellis continued to run the bench with coach Don Granato also in COVID-19 protocol.
Former Islander Kyle Okposo’s power-play goal at 19:00 of the first period tied it at 1.
The Islanders took control in the second period. Kieffer Bellows, making the most of his extended look in the lineup because of the COVID-19 absences despite his own stint in protocol, made it 2-1 at 6:45 by combining strong stickwork with his lethal wrist shot. Bellows skated around Alex Tuch in the neutral zone, then shielded the puck from defenseman Henri Jokiharju before blistering it past Subban.
Bellows set up Anders Lee’s power-play backhander at the crease at 11:25.
"I’m feeling confident in my game right now," said Bellows, who has goals in two straight games. "Just more patient with the puck, having that extra split-second to make choices."