The Islanders have a chance to roll to an exclamation mark.
They can complete a three-game sweep of teams in a tight, seven-squad pack vying for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots by beating the Capitals on Saturday night at UBS Arena.
The Islanders (34-25-8) hold a two-point lead for the first wild-card position yet still have played more games than any of their pursuers. But they topped the visiting Sabres, 3-2, on Tuesday night. Then they rallied from a two-goal deficit entering the third period for a 4-3 road overtime win against the Penguins — two points back in the second wild-card spot — on Thursday night.
“We’re playing against teams that are all in the same little, tight picture for the wild card,” said Brock Nelson, who scored the overtime winner against the Penguins on a breakaway for his team-leading 28th goal. “Given this point of the season, that would be huge. It would be a big confidence boost.”
The Islanders have won three straight and are 6-1-1 since top-line playmaker Mathew Barzal was sidelined with a knee injury.
Which is not to say the Islanders are a better team without Barzal. They’re winning tight contests — nine of their last 13 games have had a one-goal margin — on improved defensive efforts, strong goaltending and dominant third periods. The Islanders have now outscored opponents 17-1 in the third period over their last 10 games.
“Right now, we have a little momentum,” Nelson said. “We’ve had a few good games and come out with big points. If we could close it out it would definitely put a nice exclamation point on the week.”
The Islanders are also 7-2-1 at UBS Arena since Jan. 27.
“Looking forward to it,” said Anders Lee, who scored two goals against the Penguins and has 26 this season, of hosting the Capitals. “Our fans have been phenomenal of late. We feed off of their energy. We feel that big time. So, to get back in front of them with another big two points available as well, let’s roll.”
“We’ll make sure we focus here and get our rest and make sure we’re ready to play Saturday,” said coach Lane Lambert, who gave his team Friday off. “Every game is huge. The more wins you can get, the better.”
Ilya Sorokin has won eight of his last 10 starts and stopped 34 shots against the Penguins as he continues to make a strong case to be a Vezina Trophy finalist with a 2.35 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.
But Lambert may turn to Semyon Varlamov against the Capitals before the Islanders embark upon a three-game, week-long California swing. Varlamov made 23 saves for his second shutout in his last start, a 4-0 road win over the Jets on Feb. 26.
Either way, the Islanders know they have the chance to cap a special schedule segment.
Said Casey Cizikas, “The way we play our game, the way we know we have to play, we can play with anyone in this league.”