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Islanders' late-season slide is difficult to judge

The Islanders skate off the ice after a

The Islanders skate off the ice after a loss against the New Jersey Devils at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday, May 6, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Braydon Coburn has been in the NHL playoffs 11 times, appearing in 137 games for two teams. That’s enough experience to know that he does not know anything about how to interpret late regular-season results.

"I’ve kind of seen it a number of different ways and it’s worked out a number of different ways," the Islanders defenseman, a former member of the Flyers and Lightning, said after practice on Friday.

Coburn was on Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup-winning team last season after the Lightning lost seven of their last 10 games preceding the COVID-19 pause.

Then again, he said, "I’ve been on teams that have played unreal toward the end the season and then lay an egg right away [in the playoffs]."

The Islanders are hoping for the opposite of that. The only thing "unreal" about their recent performance is that they have lost three games in a row to the Sabres and Devils, the two worst teams in the East Division.

They have not beaten a team other than the Rangers in regulation time since April 6.

On Saturday night, they will close their regular-season history at Nassau Coliseum against the Devils, then visit the Bruins on Monday after likely being locked into fourth place.

Not the most inspiring of circumstances, which is why coach Barry Trotz gave his players the psychological benefit of the doubt.

Trotz was harsh in his assessment after Thursday’s 2-1 loss to the Devils, warning that playoff preparation is "not a switch."

But on Friday, he acknowledged the obvious, saying, "I think mentally the guys are taking a little bit of a breather, and I understand that fully because they know the playoffs are around the corner."

He also noted that the regular-season slog is particularly challenging because of the nature of his team.

"We’re not built where we can just out-skill you every night," he said. "We’ve got to play with a lot of heart and dignity and hardness, and it’s a grind. We out-will teams at times and we out-defend teams and we outhit teams. It is taxing. That’s the way we’re built."

So yes, Trotz wants to see his team clean up its play in the final two games, but he suggested he will continue to rest some players, and that avoiding injury trumps all.

If Monday’s finale turns out to be meaningless in the standings, it will be meaningless in his assessment, too. In such situations, he said, "all the veteran guys are just trying to get through the game without getting marked up."

At least the Islanders might draw motivation on Saturday from closing out the Coliseum in style.

"It’s a special place," Brock Nelson said, "not just for the team right here but the guys who have played before, the fans, everybody in the community."

Trotz recalled visiting for a playoff series as the Capitals’ coach. "I got hit with a few beers, the whole nine yards," he said. "It was incredible. I loved it. It was old-school. The building was shaking."

Coburn remembered a visit as a Flyer. "You could feel the dressing room rumble, and that’s something in the NHL that’s very rare," he said. "It just had a different, almost a circus atmosphere to it that sticks with me to this day."

Trotz said he is confident his players will be ready when the time comes.

"The most important thing is to keep the group healthy," he said. "That’s No. 1. Win or lose right now, it’s not going to affect what’s happening with us."

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