BUFFALO — The Islanders’ big-game status has changed. They now can be considered the hunted, not the hunter, as they continue their playoff push.
The Islanders, who will open a two-game road trip against the Sabres on Tuesday night at KeyBank Center, are well past the point of being able to surprise anybody with their efficient style of defensive hockey.
“One hundred percent,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “We’re at the top of our division. There are all those teams below us trying to catch us. It’s good, though. If we keep winning, they’re not going to be able to catch us.”
The Islanders (33-16-6), two victories shy of last season’s win total with 27 games to play, have won three straight and are 19-4-2 since Dec. 15 to reach first place in the Metropolitan Division.
They did not practice on Monday after opening a five-point lead on the second-place Capitals by sweeping a weekend back-to-back at Barclays Center, 4-3 in overtime over the Avalanche on Saturday and 2-1 over the Wild on Sunday.
Both of those Western Conference teams are scrambling for playoff position, and the same is true of the Islanders’ two upcoming road opponents. The Sabres, featuring No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, are four points behind the Penguins for the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot.
Former Sabres goalie Robin Lehner made 39 saves in his first game against his former team as the Islanders won, 3-1, on New Year’s Eve in Buffalo.
The Islanders also have a key divisional game on Thursday night at Columbus. The third-place Blue Jackets, seven points behind the Islanders, will host the Capitals on Tuesday night.
The Islanders won the first meeting against the Blue Jackets, rallying from a two-goal deficit for a 3-2 win on Dec. 1 as Thomas Greiss made 28 saves in the first regular-season game at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum since 2015.
Left wing Anthony Beauvillier said the Islanders still have an underdog mentality.
“We’re still hunting,” said Beauvillier, who snapped an 11-game goal drought on Sunday. “We don’t really look back. We just want to look forward and keep rising and climbing. Early in the year, everyone doubted us. We’re trying to prove people wrong. We haven’t accomplished anything. We want to make the playoffs and have a good run. There’s a little bit more in us, I think.”
The Islanders have not made the playoffs since 2016, have won only one playoff series since 1993 and have not finished first since winning the Patrick Division title in 1988. But they’ve found consistency under coach Barry Trotz.
“It’s just a matter of coming to play every night,” Pulock said. “If you do that, it’s going to take care of itself.”