NEWARK — The NHL schedule is not supposed to be easy.
But the Islanders open a particularly tough stretch on Friday night against the Metropolitan Division-leading Devils at Prudential Center. The second-place Hurricanes visit UBS Arena on Saturday night and the Islanders then begin a season-long five-game road trip against the Atlantic Division-leading Bruins on Tuesday night.
“It’s going to be some good hockey and something that’s going to test us as a team,” Casey Cizikas said. “That’s what you want. You want to be tested. You want to be pushed. Coming up here with these three games it’s a good test for us as a group and something we’re looking forward to. There’s nothing better than good, hard-fought hockey.”
“All the stretches are the same except now these are some top-dog teams,” captain Anders Lee said. “These aren’t going to be easy points to get. These types of stretches and challenges are exciting moments in the season. It creates a little bit of energy just by knowing how big a challenge it can be.”
The Islanders enter Friday’s match having lost three of four and jockeying for playoff position with the Penguins, Rangers and Hurricanes within the division and the Lightning, Red Wings and Panthers within the Eastern Conference.
But even after the Islanders finish the five-game road trip, which also includes contests against Pacific Division-leading Vegas, the defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche and the Rangers, the Islanders still will have 48 games left in the regular season.
“Right now it’s important to build our game,” Lee said. “There’s still a lot of hockey to be played. But, yeah, you want to be in a good spot. You look at [the standings], it’s nice to see yourself in a good spot.”
The Devils, catching the Islanders flat-footed with their speed, dominated the teams’ first meeting with a 4-1 win at UBS Arena on Oct. 20 as they held a 41-17 shot advantage and outchanced the Islanders, 75-48.
Cizikas said that game served as a “wake-up call” for the Islanders, who proceeded to win 13 of their next 19 games.
“They’re a fast team,” Cizikas said. “I think we didn’t respect them enough in that first game and that’s on us. That’s something we definitely learned from.”
“They took it to us pretty good that game,” defenseman Noah Dobson said. “It was definitely a wake-up call. I thought we responded well to a tough start. We dug ourselves out of that and got ourselves into a good position and had a really good November with a lot of road games. We’ve just got to continue to build our game and keep getting better, each game, each week, each month. It’s a big stretch coming up.”
Also an interesting one because, to date, the Islanders actually hadn’t played too many games against teams currently holding playoff positions.
Entering Friday’s match, the Islanders held a 3-4-0 record against the 15 other teams that occupied postseason spots at the start of the day’s play. Obviously, that’s way too small of a sample size to determine how the Islanders can measure up against elite competition.
But the Islanders have struggled at times against teams with superior speed such as the Devils.
“Every game is a challenge,” said defenseman Robin Salo, expected to get the first chance to rejoin the lineup if Adam Pelech, who appeared to suffer a head injury in Tuesday’s 7-4 loss to the visiting Blues, is forced to miss time.
“Every team is different. We just have to get ready and scout the opposition and try to do a good job.”
It won’t be easy. But it’s never supposed to be.