NEWARK — Jaroslav Halak and the Islanders did their part, winning a fifth straight game to put pressure on the Maple Leafs in the final weekend of the regular season.
But a little more than an hour after the Islanders grabbed a 4-2 win over the Devils on Saturday night, Toronto rallied to beat the Penguins, and that ended the Isles’ furious finish. The Maple Leafs grabbed the final Eastern Conference playoff berth and the Islanders will miss out after reaching the playoffs the previous two seasons.
Halak made 37 saves in another terrific outing, this one more crucial than any of the four that preceded it as his teammates slogged through what coach Doug Weight called “one of the worst first periods we’ve had in a long time.”
The Devils, the Eastern Conference’s basement-dwellers, had a 23-11 shot edge in the first, 14-4 on goal. By the time three minutes had elapsed in the second period, Halak had turned aside three breakaways, all by the Devils’ big scorers. He denied Taylor Hall in the first, then Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique in the second.
“I’m just trying to focus game by game. I’m not trying to look at the big picture,’’ said Halak, who has allowed only six goals in the five straight wins. He’s eligible to return to the AHL and play for Bridgeport if the Sound Tigers make the postseason.
The Islanders still were alive for the postseason when the doors opened to the visitors’ locker room after their win. Anders Lee, who scored his 32nd and 33rd goals of the season, spoke about the pride in the room.
Cal Clutterbuck thought that this latest Islanders win might make the young Maple Leafs a bit more nervous as they slogged through their back-and-forth game with the Penguins in Toronto. “They’re a team where most of them haven’t been there before,” he said. “I think this one will really put the pressure on them.”
But it turned out that the Leafs’ season-long consistency was enough for a 5-3 win over the Penguins that denied the Islanders and Lightning, both latecomers who needed improbable streaks and good fortune to have a shot at the postseason.
The Islanders were last in the conference as late as Jan. 21, four days after Weight took over for Jack Capuano behind the bench. Saturday night’s win gave them a 23-12-4 record under Weight, whose team will end its season Sunday at home against the Senators before his bosses decide whether he should have the interim tag removed.
“We didn’t deserve to win tonight, but sometimes you need some things to go your way when you need something special to happen,” Weight said. “Jaro and Anders carried us tonight.”
Adam Pelech and Lee scored second-period goals among the Isles’ first eight shots on net; the Devils already had 20 on Halak. Jason Chimera scored early in the third and Lee connected on the power play to extend the lead back to three goals and send the Islanders safely on their way
As the Isles left Prudential Center, headed back to their own beds for the first time in a week, they were focused on their phones and hoping for one more kick at it Sunday in Brooklyn.
“All we wanted was to give ourselves a chance, and we gave ourselves that,” said Chimera, who scored his 19th goal. “You pray to the hockey gods and hope for a meaningful game tomorrow.”
They won’t get that chance.