The Islanders celebrate a goal by John Tavares in the...

The Islanders celebrate a goal by John Tavares in the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers in a NHL hockey game at Nassau Coliseum. (April 9, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

It was not the best 40 minutes' worth of Islanders work Tuesday night at the Coliseum. But they carried a lead into the third period against the Flyers, who hadn't lost on Long Island since April 2010.

In that third period the Islanders showed why they are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. They played with a desperation that overwhelmed Philadelphia at times, limiting the Flyers to a small handful of scoring chances in a 4-1 victory.

The win wasn't assured until John Tavares was credited with his 24th goal with 1:37 to play, the puck caroming in off Flyers defenseman Erik Gustafsson. Casey Cizikas added an empty-net goal 28 seconds later.

But this was a gut-check win, another marker to check off as the Islanders continue to mature before our eyes into the sort of team that outworks opponents no matter what the situation.

"We're not playing to lose, we're playing to win,'' said Kyle Okposo, who had a couple of dominating shifts in the third period. "That's a big change around here. We've got a ton of confidence right now.''

Right now the Islanders are 7-1-1 in their last nine games, winners of four straight at the Coliseum and sitting in seventh with 44 points, tied with the sixth-place Senators but trailing by virtue of one more game played. The Isles moved two points in front of the idle Rangers, who have a game in hand.

The Eastern Conference is still a tightly packed chase from sixth place to 11th, with only six points separating six teams -- seven if you count third-seeded Washington, which has the same number of points as the Islanders but gets its lofty perch from leading the Southeast Division.

But the Islanders know that strong finishes to games such as this one and points over the final eight games will mean they need to look around only for playoff seeding, not to see who's chasing them.

"We've got all the cards in our hands,'' said Michael Grabner, who snapped off a wrist shot on a feed from Colin McDonald at 17:42 of the second to break a 1-1 tie and give the Isles the lead after two mostly mediocre periods. "We know we're right in it and we have to keep winning games.''

Evgeni Nabokov allowed an early breakaway goal by Jakub Voracek but stopped the other 27 shots he faced, including all 13 in what could best be termed a fitful second period.

"We were pretty sloppy at times in the second,'' said Tavares, who helped turn the tide with a controlling shift late in the period with the score tied. Grabner's goal came barely 30 seconds later.

"We finally had that good shift and Grabs came up with a huge goal,'' Tavares said. "We've got more and more guys contributing.''

Matt Moulson had the Isles' first goal in his return from missing a game because of the flu. The Islanders play tomorrow in Boston, a house of horrors. The Isles have won only twice there in the last 11 trips.

But this team hasn't played scared in a long while.

"We didn't beat these guys my first three years in the league,'' Okposo said of the Flyers. "You could see it out there tonight. You could see it. We were the better team and maybe we weren't playing great for 30 minutes, but we deserved this one.''

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