New York Islanders' Mathew Barzal celebrates with teammates after scoring a...

New York Islanders' Mathew Barzal celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the third period against the Washington Capitals on April 1, 2021. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

Sure, there’s a tension-filled, nail-biting element. But to the Islanders’ competitive spirit, these games against the Capitals in the battle for first place in the East Division are fun.

"It’s good competition," Mathew Barzal said. "You get these little segments in the year where you’re fighting for certain positions and you’re playing the team you’re fighting for that spot with. Those are fun games.The last one had a lot of intensity. Just two good hockey teams going at it for first place."

The Islanders are two points behind the division-leading Capitals entering Tuesday night’s game at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders opened this six-game homestand with an 8-4 win over the Capitals on Thursday. The teams will play five times in April.

"They’ve got a lot of pedigree on that side and I think it helps with our pedigree as well," coach Barry Trotz said after Monday’s practice at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow. "A lot of guys have won a Stanley Cup over there [in 2018, with Trotz coaching the Capitals]. We want to be in that position as well.

"It’s good to play meaningful games."

Barzal was named the NHL’s first star of the week for the first time in his career on Monday.

He had three goals and four assists in his three games last week, plus the shootout winner in Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Flyers.

Barzal is on a four-game point streak (four goals, five assists) and matched his career high with five points and his third career hat trick on Thursday. That included a first-period, highlight-reel, end-to-end rush for a goal as Barzal skated past all five Capitals defenders.

"I wouldn’t say I dwell on it,’’ he said, "but it is nice to be recognized for having a good week. Every week I get to see on Instagram or Twitter the three stars of the week and their highlights. I haven’t been the first star in my career, so it’s kind of cool. It’s nothing crazy, but it’s a nice feather in the cap."

Sharks goalie Martin Jones, who won four games with a shutout, was the second star and the Bruins’ Brad Marchand, who had five goals and two assists in three games, was the third star.

Notes & quotes: Ross Johnston practiced and is expected to be available against the Capitals. He exited Saturday’s game in the first period after fighting the Flyers’ Samuel Morin . . . Defenseman Noah Dobson spoke to the media for the first time since returning to the lineup on Thursday after an eight-game absence because of COVID-19 protocols. "It was definitely tough, especially mentally, just being by yourself," he said. "I’m just grateful to be back healthy and back with the guys." Dobson confirmed he was essentially asymptomatic despite testing positive . . . In conjunction with the NHL picking an Islander as the first star, the league recognized a health care worker from the area: Kelly McLaughlin of Northwell Health South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore. McLaughlin, a registered nurse certified in emergency nursing,created the "Day of Hope" last April, a hospital-wide initiative to boost staff morale during COVID-199.

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