The Islanders have spent a good portion of this season banking points and considerable good will with their surprising run to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
But as they’ve entered the heart of their playoff push, they have not raised their level of play to maintain the consistency they had from mid-December to their combined All-Star break and bye week in late January.
Which is why this home-and-home series with the woeful Senators — starting with Tuesday night’s game at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum to conclude a five-game homestand that has started a disappointing 1-3-0 — absolutely feels like a must-win.
The Islanders (37-21-7), who canceled their practice on Monday out of deference to the weather conditions, fell out of first place in the division for the first time since Jan. 17 on Sunday when they lost to the Flyers, 4-1, and the Capitals beat the Rangers in a shootout.
“It only matters at the end of the year,” captain Anders Lee said. “We held it for a while. We’ve just got to get it back.”
They are two points behind the Capitals, who beat them, 3-1, on Friday night, and have lost two straight in regulation for the first time since Dec. 4-6.
The Islanders are only four points ahead of the Canadiens, who hold the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
In other words, the Islanders’ first playoff berth since 2016 is a long way from assured, no matter how much of a turnaround the franchise has taken under president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz.
Lamoriello stood pat at the NHL trade deadline rather than too heavily mortgage the future despite being in on discussions for some of the high-end rentals.
Both men expressed their belief that this group deserves to finish what it started, and Trotz has seen far too many ebbs and flows in the course of his 20 NHL seasons to overreact to the Islanders’ 2-4-1 skid and 8-6-2 record since returning from their extended break on Feb. 1.
“You’re going to go through stretches, 10 games, where good teams are going to have those 8-1-1 records and then, in the next 10, you’ve got to grind through it,” he said. “Right now, we’re going to have to grind through stuff.”
The Islanders, who have been held to one goal in each of their three losses on this homestand and are 0-for-10 on the power play over five games, have not lost three in a row in regulation this season.
There is a question about whether any member of their invaluable fourth line will be available on Tuesday night. Left wing Matt Martin has missed two games with an upper-body injury, Cal Clutterbuck left Sunday’s loss with an upper-body injury and center Casey Cizikas played through an illness.
“We need to find that desperation in our game,” right wing Jordan Eberle said. “We haven’t really had that much adversity this year. But we’re finding it now. I guess it’s better to find it now than to find it in the playoffs.”