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Islanders' slow start ramps up the urgency of each game

New York Islanders left wing Anders Lee (27)

New York Islanders left wing Anders Lee (27) skates with the puck past Washington Capitals defenseman Justin Schultz (2) during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Washington. Credit: AP/Nick Wass

It could get late early for the Islanders.

They split their first six contests in a shortened, 56-game season heading into Thursday night’s conclusion of a two-game series against the Capitals at Washington. Already, there are concerns about falling too far behind in the East Division standings and, more important, an urgency to rediscover the consistent, hard-working nature that defined much of their first two seasons under coach Barry Trotz.

"I think we need to play our game," captain Anders Lee said. "And I don’t think we’ve done that. It’s been six games and a couple have gotten away from us. At this point of the season, we have to get to who we are, find ourselves a little bit and just right the ship. I think there’s a time to overlook things or the time to forget about things and I think this is a combination where we take this to heart and we improve on it right away."

Defenseman Justin Schultz’s goal with 26.4 seconds remaining in regulation on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena lifted the depleted Capitals to a 3-2 win and gave the Islanders their first back-to-back losses to start this season-high, five-game road trip. The Islanders also play two games at Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday nights to conclude a stretch of seven of their first nine on the road.

Tuesday’s defeat left an annoyed Trotz warning after the game that the Islanders had yet to find the "playoff mentality" necessary with all games played within the division and only four of the eight teams qualifying for the postseason.

"We need that urgency here," defenseman Ryan Pulock said. "It’s a shortened season. Things can happen quick in terms of the standings. We need to get some points to stay in the race."

The first-place Capitals held a five-point lead on the seventh-place Islanders entering Thursday’s game.

But Trotz knows that can change quickly if the Islanders can start playing like the team that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993 before bowing in six games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning.

Trotz did not get the four-line balance and production he wanted through the first six games as the Islanders scored just 11 goals (1.8 per game). Eight of those goals came in two of their wins and the Islanders were shut out twice in their first five games.

"It always seems very urgent early in the year," Trotz said. "Even in an 82-game schedule, because you don’t want to fall back too far. In a shorter schedule, there is some urgency. The good thing about this, you can’t lose sight that you’re playing everybody in your division. So you can control a little bit more of your standings. Now every game affects you. But you have a bigger effect as you’re playing all these teams. So you’ve just got to take care of business. Unfortunately [Tuesday], we didn’t take care of business."

The Islanders, amid a stretch of four games in six days and five in eight days, did not practice on Wednesday.

Lee said it was a good opportunity to mentally review what’s happened so far.

"I feel good today," Lee said before Thursday night’s game. "Yesterday, took the day to reflect on what’s gone on and how we played and put ourselves in position to get some points. When you come away from a game like that empty-handed, it stings. I think we’ve done a good job of regrouping here and we move on."

The Islanders must. Otherwise, it could get late early for them.

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