Islanders need physical play against strong opponents to continue
WASHINGTON — Lane Lambert wasn’t taking the bait.
His Islanders certainly looked playoff-ready in their last outing with their physicality, forechecking and structure in the defensive and neutral zones. But the coach wasn’t going to make any bigger extrapolations heading into a tough, three-game road trip that opens against the Capitals on Wednesday night.
The Islanders (38-28-9), with seven games remaining, gave themselves a little cushion for the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot with Monday night’s 5-1 win over the playoff-bound Devils at UBS Arena.
“Well, I know it’s cliché, but we really just have to look at the next game and just keep playing each game as it is and focusing on our next opponent,” said Lambert when asked about the Islanders’ confidence in relation to the standings. “That’s all we can do.”
The Islanders also face the three-time conference champion Lightning on Saturday and the Metropolitan Division-leading Hurricanes on Sunday.
“At home, we wanted to take care of business,” said Kyle Palmieri, who had two goals and an assist against the Devils to give him five goals and five assists over his last six games.
“Headed on the road for some tough games, it’s something we can build on, momentum-wise. We know what it’s going to take to be successful. We’re going up against three more good teams the rest of the week.”
The Islanders’ playoff chase was able to withstand Friday’s 5-4 road overtime loss to the Blue Jackets and Saturday’s 2-0 defeat to the visiting Sabres because the Panthers have lost four straight in their “attempt” to knock either the Islanders or Penguins out of a wild-card spot. They are six points behind the Islanders with one game in hand.
The Islanders are also benefiting from playing better against stronger opponents as they are 9-3-0 since Jan. 27 against teams currently holding a playoff spot.
Of course, the opposite is also true: The Islanders would be much closer to clinching a playoff spot with a better record against non-playoff opponents.
But the Islanders’ physical performance against the Devils was a template for how they must play against the speedier teams they could face in the postseason, such as the Hurricanes. That would be the likely first-round matchup if the Islanders hold on to the first wild-card spot.
“In contrast to the way it went against Buffalo, I thought our puck movement was a lot better through the neutral zone,” said Zach Parise, who capped the scoring against the Devils with a shorthanded empty-netter. “So we were able to get into their zone more frequently and spend more offensive-zone time.”
Bo Horvat, who skated on a new trio against the Devils with Parise and Hudson Fasching, also added an empty-net goal for his first tally in 12 games.
Lambert believes that insurance goal can help Horvat on the upcoming road trip.
“One hundred percent, it can,” Lambert said. “I liked the changes.”