COLUMBUS, Ohio — Former Buckeye Tanner Fritz might never have gotten the chance to have a college homecoming as an Islander if not for an injury to Valtteri Filppula.
The third-line center, one of the Islanders’ key penalty-killers, is out for four weeks with an injured left shoulder, so Fritz, 27 — who played four seasons at Ohio State from 2011-15 — almost certainly will be in the lineup again when the Islanders open a two-game road trip against the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena.
“It’s a great opportunity for him,” coach Barry Trotz said.
But not as great as the opportunity the Islanders have to clinch their first playoff berth since 2016 before returning home. If the Islanders beat the Blue Jackets in regulation, any form of victory Thursday night at Winnipeg would clinch a berth.
The Islanders (44-25-7), who did not practice on Monday, are one point behind the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals after a 2-0 win over the Coyotes on Sunday at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum and a 4-2 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Fritz has been in the lineup for three games since his recall from Bridgeport (AHL), including a 4-0 loss at Montreal last Thursday. Trotz tends to stick with winning lineup combinations but could have two key decisions on Tuesday.
Robin Lehner played both weekend games, making 31 saves against the Coyotes for his fifth shutout. But Thomas Greiss has stopped 90 of 92 shots in winning all three games against the Blue Jackets, making 31 saves each in a 3-0 win at Columbus on Feb. 14 and a 2-0 victory at the Coliseum on March 11.
Also, injury-plagued Andrew Ladd appeared shaken up in a late third-period collision on Sunday. Rookie Michael Dal Colle, strangely a healthy scratch for eight games despite his solid play, burly Ross Johnston and steady Tom Kuhnhackl are the extra forwards.
Trotz cited Kuhnhackl’s penalty-killing ability for using him over Dal Colle in a 2-1 loss at Detroit on March 16 and a 3-2 overtime win at Minnesota the next day.
Fritz showed his value in that regard with a 44-second penalty-kill shift in the third period on Sunday, getting the puck deep into the Coyotes’ zone and keeping it there, leaving the sellout crowd chanting.
“I’ve just got to keep playing the same way,” said Fritz, an undrafted free agent who has one assist in seven games for the Islanders this season and three goals and five assists in 41 NHL games, and has yet to play in Columbus. “My game is pretty simple. I use my speed and my assets to the best of my ability.”
Fritz, an impending unrestricted free agent as he completes a two-year, two-way deal worth $1.3 million in the NHL, now has the chance to prove he’s more than an AHL player.
“His speed is undeniable up front,” Trotz said. “The more he’s playing, he’s adding trust to his game.”