Islanders fans were not the only ones keeping a close eye on Tuesday night’s Penguins-Red Wings game. The coaches and players were right there with them.
“We all have cell phones,” captain Anders Lee said after practice on Wednesday. “I check the scores. It’s exciting.”
Said coach Barry Trotz: “One hundred percent, everybody in our room does. Everybody in the NHL does. If they say they don’t, they’re lying to you.” (Trotz said he was watching three games at once Tuesday, given all the playoff permutations.)
In this case, the scoreboard watching yielded happy news. The out-of-contention Red Wings won, 4-1, which put the Islanders back in control in their quest to start a playoff series at home for the first time since 1988.
Their 99 points are two better than the Penguins’ 97. If they beat the Panthers on Thursday and the Capitals on Saturday, the worst they can finish is second in the Metropolitan Division.
They also have a shot at catching the Capitals for first place, with Washington three points ahead and facing the Canadiens on Thursday.
The Penguins, who are two points ahead of the Hurricanes for third place, have a rematch with the Red Wings on Thursday, then finish with the Rangers.
“We got some help; we must be living right,” Trotz said. “There’s opportunity there. Obviously, if we take care of business on our side, it sets us up in a pretty good spot.”
The Islanders were in a precarious position after losing to the Maple Leafs on Monday — on a night when the Caps also lost — but now anything is possible again.
“We got a little lucky,” Matt Martin said.
Home-ice advantage in the NHL playoffs is not as important as in other sports, notably the NBA, although Lee said not having to travel for Game 1 would be a bonus.
The real payoff comes if the series goes the distance. Martin said he thought that was a big edge for the Capitals when they beat the Islanders in Game 7 in 2015, and for the Bruins when they beat the Maple Leafs last year, when Martin played for the Leafs.
“I personally believe it’s a huge advantage to have that last game in your building,” Martin said. “That’s what you play for. We have an opportunity to do that.”
The Iast time the Islanders had home ice in 1988, they did not get to a Game 7. They won Game 1, 4-3 in overtime, against the Devils but eventually lost the series in six games. The Islanders have not played a winner-take-all finale at home since beating the Rangers in the fifth game of a best-of-five first-round series in 1984. They have not played a Game 7 at home since 1978, when they lost to the Maple Leafs in overtime in the quarterfinals.
NHL tiebreakers are complicated by the fact overtime victories and shootout victories are treated differently.
The first tiebreaker is wins in regulation or overtime. The Islanders currently have 42 and the Penguins 41. The tiebreaker after that is head-to-head points, where each team has five. The one after that is goal differential for the entire season. The Penguins currently are plus-30 and the Islanders plus-28.
“It’s one of those things you strive for, you work for, and that opportunity is still there to get,” Lee said of home ice, “so why not do something good these last couple of games?”
Notes & quotes: Valtteri Filppula, out since March 19 with an elbow injury, practiced and said he is “really optimistic” he can return for the playoffs. Said Trotz: “That would be really big for us.” . . . G Robin Lehner was given a rest day because of “general soreness.” Trotz seemed unconcerned. “If he’s fine, there’s a good chance he could go [Thursday],” the coach said . . . Trotz has an idea whom he will start in goal for Game 1 of the playoffs. And? “Come to the game; get a ticket,” he said . . . Trotz would like to get defenseman Thomas Hickey into a game this week . . . Trotz, who lives in Garden City, has been pleasantly surprised about Long Island. “I didn’t realize how nice it is, the area,” he said. “I didn’t know about it for the first 20 years in this league. I knew the Marriott and I knew the ‘Champions’ bar downstairs where you ate and I knew the Coliseum, and that was about it.”