They are no longer playing the part of the spoiler, so the Islanders have to be on guard for games like last night, when the Panthers tried to do what the Isles have been forced to for several seasons: Ruin another team's chances of making the postseason.
The Islanders were up to the challenge -- for about a period and change. After piling on five goals in the opening 23:33, the Islanders let themselves go a little. It was a 5-2 win over the last-place Panthers, but the Islanders were chastising themselves for playing too loose in their Nassau Coliseum regular-season finale.
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"We thought we could play a little run and gun with them, maybe guys looking to pick up some points individually," Andrew MacDonald said. "We came out strong in the first, but then we got away from everything."
Perhaps a better team, or a playoff opponent, would have made the Islanders pay for their lapses. But they got the needed two points when the struggling Florida offense was unable to push through. Evgeni Nabokov made 26 saves, more than half of them after he was knocked down by Panthers forward Scottie Upshall in the second and needed the Isles trainer to check on his neck.
The win, coupled with the Rangers' 4-2 loss in Philadelphia, had the Isles three points clear in seventh place, still one point back of the Senators. The Isles head off on their season-ending, five-game road trip that begins tomorrow in Toronto on a 6-0-2 streak, 9-1-2 in their last 12 games and 5-0-1 in their final six home games after starting the season 5-11-2 at the Coliseum.
Jack Capuano admitted to some concerns about a letdown after the Isles' 1-0 overtime loss to the Rangers on Saturday.
His team allayed those fears with a strong first period. Matt Moulson's redirection got things going at 8:01, Mark Streit's five-on-three slap shot opened up a two-goal lead at 13:59 and Michael Grabner had the first of his two goals on a breakaway at 16:47.
Goals within 14 seconds in the second, by Radek Martinek and Grabner, chased Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom and the Islanders appeared headed for a laugher at 5-1.
There was no laughing at the Isles' play in the middle of the second. They lost Casey Cizikas to an upper body injury after he blocked a high shot, and they nearly lost Nabokov after Upshall crashed the net; the goaltender stayed down for two minutes but stayed in the game as the 15,922 fans exhaled.
Nabokov was especially sharp through the third as the Islanders let the Panthers take the game to them.
"We didn't play the exact hockey we've played over the last couple weeks," Capuano said. "There can't be any panic in your game this time of year. But good teams find a way to win, and we found a way."
And they know what's at stake now. Regulation wins tomorrow in Toronto and Saturday in Winnipeg could clinch the Isles' first playoff berth since 2007.
"We realized that wasn't the game that's been bringing us success lately," MacDonald said. "We tried to get a little fancy and it almost cost us."