The Islanders resumed their season yet again on Thursday night.
Their game against the Devils at UBS Arena was their first since a 3-2 overtime win over the visiting Oilers on New Year’s Day and their fourth contest in 26 days.
But now they face an unrelenting schedule through the end of the regular season, barring any further COVID-19-related postponements.
Thursday marked the start of 11 games in 20 days for the Islanders leading into the NHL’s All-Star break. The stretch includes three back-to-back sets, but all the games are at UBS Arena save for Tuesday at Philadelphia. The Islanders had an NHL-high 54 games remaining, including Thursday.
"I think it’s nice to get into a rhythm, a routine," said Brock Nelson, who returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games while in COVID-19 protocol, including a 4-1 win over the Sabres at UBS Arena on Dec. 30.
"The coaching staff, they’ve been good when the schedule has been like that with rest and managing guys. As players, you like that. You want to be in those game moments as much as you can. We probably have a few back-to-backs, three-in-fours. But it’s rest, recovery, just being ready every night."
Coach Barry Trotz missed his second straight game, this time as he remained in COVID-19 protocol. Associate coach Lane Lambert also ran the bench against the Oilers as Trotz mourned the passing of his mother.
Thursday marked the first of four straight games against Metropolitan Division opponents, crucial points as the last-place Islanders try to fight back into playoff contention.
"It’s huge," defenseman Scott Mayfield said. "We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got ourselves in a little bit of a hole and we’ve got to climb out. There are teams in the standings we’ve got to jump ahead, and the best way to do that is by playing them and beating them. We know what’s in front of us. We’re just excited to play and get out there."
The Islanders started play on Thursday 16 points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. They are the only team in the league that has played fewer than 30 games, and the NHL still must reschedule nine of their postponed games. That includes their postponed trip to Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary that led to this 12-day stretch between games.
They also have a four-game western swing Feb. 24-March 1. As of now, 10 of their 14 games in April to conclude the regular season will be on the road.
"The team believes in one another and what we’re going to do," Nelson said. "We’re in a little bit of a hole. You can’t turn back time and change things. We are where we are. With that said, it just means we have an opportunity to go out there and get something done and take it game by game."
It also means the coaching staff, with every point imperative, has little wiggle room waiting for players to find their games.
For instance, Kyle Palmieri was available but remained out of Thursday night’s lineup after missing the last three games with a lower-body injury. The former Devil has only one goal and six assists in 25 games, and Trotz said after the win over the Sabres that Palmieri wouldn’t necessarily be reinserted into the lineup once healthy.
Matt Martin also was a healthy scratch as Ross Johnston took his spot on Casey Cizikas’ identity line with Cal Clutterbuck. Oliver Wahlstrom drew back in after missing two games because of his bout with COVID-19.