WASHINGTON — The Islanders are playing better hockey, having won three straight in regulation for the first time this season after concluding a 4-2-0 homestand. It’s likely no coincidence that this improvement comes as the result of playing more hockey after a COVID-19-impacted sparser schedule earlier in the season.
There’s a rhythm to their game now, and the Islanders will continue a grueling stretch of seven games in 11 days with a critically important game against the Capitals on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena.
Critically important, that is, if one still believes the Islanders can overcome the long odds and make a playoff push. The Islanders (24-24-8), who reached NHL .500 for the first time since Feb. 9 with a 4-3 win over the Ducks on Sunday night at UBS Arena, are 18 points behind the Capitals for the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot and have played four fewer games.
"Any time you have a good game or a few good games in a row, you start to find your energy a little bit," said Anders Lee, who has scored seven times in a four-game goal streak and was named the NHL’s third star of the week on Monday. "The room’s lighter. It’s not dragging on you. You look forward to the next game as much as possible and keep that feeling going. We’ve just built on that. Something we’ve wanted to do all year is build our game, and I think we’re starting to do that the right way."
The Islanders did not practice on Monday, a common occurrence on days without games through this condensed schedule.
"There will be some moments where we'll hit a little bit of a wall," coach Barry Trotz said. "We’re playing more to our identity. We’re getting goaltending. Our power play, for the most part, is contributing each night. Our penalty kill has been good. Our overall game has been pretty good defensively and we’re scoring goals. That has to feel good. Let’s call it what it is. It’s been a rotten year for us in terms of where we want to be."
The Islanders reached the playoffs in each of the first three seasons under the stewardship of Trotz and president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, including runs to the NHL semifinals the last two seasons.
But Lamoriello faces the likely prospect of trying to be a seller in advance of the NHL trade deadline next Monday. Of course, with four games remaining before the deadline, the Islanders still could convince him otherwise.
Which is why Tuesday’s game has critical importance to a tight-knit group.
The Islanders will face the Capitals three more times, including a home-and-home series the final week of the season.
"I think we’ve been pretty even keel," Trotz said. "I think maybe earlier in the season we weren’t. I think we were feeling the strain of the start and all the other stuff. I think we’re past all that. Now it’s just playing hockey."