CALGARY, Alberta — The Islanders still were on the outermost fringe of playoff contention the last time they embarked for Western Canada. They came home with any hope extinguished.
Things, of course, are completely different a year later. The Islanders — who did not practice Monday as they flew cross-continent before opening their three-game swing against the Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome on Wednesday night — are in first place in the Metropolitan Division. They have won five of six, are on a 21-5-2 run since Dec. 15 and have gone 8-2-2 in games decided by one goal in that stretch.
They are coming off Saturday’s 5-2 victory over the Oilers at Barclays Center, a game in which they turned a 2-1 lead entering the third period into a comfortable winning margin.
“That was kind of a fragile spot for us last year,” center Mathew Barzal said. “The team has come a long way since the start of the season. Just the experience and learning how to play in situations.”
The Islanders (35-17-6) have matched last season’s win total and are four points shy of matching last season’s 80 points. The NHL trade deadline is Monday, and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello is believed to be very active in discussions with other teams, including the Senators, who are ready to move top-line center Matt Duchene. Lamoriello also may have interest in Wild center Eric Staal.
The likely priority is a scoring forward who also can fortify the 24th-ranked power play as special-teams play becomes more crucial in tight games.
The Islanders already have shown a marked improvement in playing in tight games after going 15-11-9 in one-goal games last season, winning only six in regulation.
Last season’s Western Canada swing started with a 4-3 overtime loss at Vancouver after they led 2-0 in the second period. That was followed by a 2-1 shootout loss at Edmonton in which the Oilers scored the equalizer with 1:50 left in regulation. The Isles snapped an 0-4-4 slide with a 5-2 win at Calgary.
“If you look at our defensive game from last year to this year, just the way we find a way to win tight games compared to last year,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “The last 30 to 40 games, we’ve been comfortable in those tight spots.”
Notes & quotes: Bridgeport’s Josh Ho-Sang was named the AHL player of the week with four goals and two assists in two games . . . In the second game of their AHL conditioning stints, Thomas Hickey had a goal and two assists and Andrew Ladd added three assists in Bridgeport’s 7-3 win over Charlotte on Sunday. They can be activated off long-term injured reserve at any time.
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