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Isles travel road toward playoff contention

New York Islanders line up to congratulate Evgeni

New York Islanders line up to congratulate Evgeni Nabokov #20 following a 4-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers. (Dec. 31, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Islanders' road to legitimacy and being a bona fide playoff contender in the final 46 games of the season is just that: a road. Starting Tuesday night against the Hurricanes -- with whom they are tied for 14th in the Eastern Conference (the Islanders have four games in hand) -- the Isles have three games this week away from Nassau Coliseum.

They are three games against very beatable opponents. Carolina already has changed coaches this season and has bobbed along at or near the bottom of the East. The Ducks, Friday's opponent, also have changed coaches and are one of two teams with fewer points than the Islanders. And Saturday, they face the Coyotes, one of two teams with lower attendance figures than the Isles, along with a poor home record (7-8-3) to match their negligible support.

There are points for the taking for the Islanders, who put forth two solid efforts to defeat the Flames and Oilers at home last week. They still are 11 points and six teams away from the eighth spot in the East, but if this team is to get into even the fringes of the playoff race, this is a key week.

"It seems we've had a few stretches of good games and then we follow it up with some bad ones," Andrew MacDonald said. "We know we have to be more consistent because we don't have time to keep taking steps back."

After gutting out road shootout wins over the Wild and Jets two weeks ago, the Islanders believed they were ready to compete. They had a pair of bad losses to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden sandwiched around an ugly loss to the Leafs at home, the second time this season they've followed up a two-game winning streak with a three-game losing streak.

Part of the rebound wins over Calgary and Edmonton -- the Isles are 5-2-4 against the Western Conference this season -- was the solid play from goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who had Coliseum fans chanting his name during both wins.

"It feels good," said Nabokov, who is 4-8-0 but has a 2.46 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage. "Now we need to build on it."

Notes & quotes: G Rick DiPietro, out since Dec. 2 with a groin injury, practiced and traveled with the team for the road trip. G Anders Nilsson did, too, so DiPietro is not quite ready to dress for a game. F Jay Pandolfo (broken foot) also practiced and made the trip. G Al Montoya (concussion) and F David Ullstrom (concussion) stayed behind.

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