After a commanding 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, in which the Islanders did not allow a single shot in the third period, one sentiment rings throughout: it is time to kick it up a notch.
As of the date of publication, the Islanders sit in third place in the East division, just two points ahead of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, both of whom have a game in hand.
Washington must win tomorrow to stay above the line. pic.twitter.com/ytWMGcWUiz
— Sammi Silber (@sammisilber) February 16, 2021
With this small lead in mind, it is critical that the Islanders use this two-week stretch to pull as far ahead as they can from the small pack fighting for the final playoff spot. It is more about who the Islanders will play – beatable teams – than the timing in the schedule, since there will still be 34 games remaining after this stretch ends against the New Jersey Devils on March 2.
The Islanders will face the Sabres two more times in the next two weeks, Penguins four times, the Boston Bruins once and the previously mentioned Devils once. Of these games, the Islanders need to win at least six games, preferably in regulation to avoid surrendering a “loser point” to the teams they are directly competing against for the final playoff spots.
With the return of Anthony Beauvillier, there are no excuses for the Islanders whose lineup will be back to full strength. This team recognizes this chance and will not be complacent with their recent found success.
“We’ve been going pretty good,” Bailey said after Monday’s win. “At the same time, things can change in a hurry for better or worse … [We need to] keep doing the things we need to do to have success.”
After two weeks without a game, the Sabres will certainly look better tonight and next Monday, but these are must-win games against one of the more beatable teams in the division. In a staunchly competitive division, head coach Barry Trotz’s club need to take advantage of games against teams like the Sabres, Devils and even the New York Rangers, although they have looked better in this last stretch. Two wins against the Sabres in this stretch leaves the Islanders searching for four more wins in the next six games, something that is relatively manageable.
Next on the schedule is a pair of road games against the Penguins, who beat the Islanders 4-3 in a shootout the last time the two played.
Taking a motto from countless playoff series, the Islanders would love to win both, but at the very least stealing one game on the road is acceptable. This Penguins team is somewhat hard to analyse from afar. Their roster is barren outside of its top five skaters to the point that former Islanders’ legend — and I use ‘legend’ liberally — Kevin Czurczman has suited up twice for Pittsburgh. In all honesty, I did not know Czurczman still played professional hockey but more power to him.
All kidding aside, the Pens will go as far as Sidney Crosby can take them. They need to do something to fix the lackluster goaltending, which has combined for an NHL-worst save percentage of .872. The road split for the Islanders is predicated on sweeping the home back-to-back the following weekend against them. Taking six out of eight points could set the Isles up for great success moving forward. Limiting Pitt to just two points in those games could be an early blow to Pittsburgh’s season that it may not have an answer to.
Between the final Sabres game of this stretch and the Feb. 27-28 weekend date against the Penguins is a battle with the best team in the division, Boston.
Sure, the Islanders have been the only team to beat the B’s in regulation this season — twice to be accurate— but these are the same Bruins who smacked the Islanders around year after year for as long as I can remember.
Last time the Islanders beat the Bruins: January 16, 2017
Last time the Islanders beat the Bruins on home ice: November 11, 2013
And people say they don’t need to prove they could beat them to be a playoff team.
I beg to differ.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) March 19, 2019
A defeat here would certainly hurt the morale of the fanbase, but a predicted three wins in the previous four should ease the pain.
This is a really scary Bruins team that has run through the likes of the Flyers, Capitals and Penguins. So at the macro level, a 2-1 record against a real Stanley Cup contender is nothing to sneeze at.
Finally, to end this eight game stretch, is a contest against tri-state rival, New Jersey. To the surprise of many, the Devils were hot out of the gate, led by the second coming of Martin Broduer, this time spelt “Mackenzie Blackwood.” The young goalie has played out of his mind in just three games before COVID-19 struck the Devils. He posted a 1.90 goals-against average and a save percentage of .948.
Despite this, the Devils are still the Devils.
They are team bound for regression with a concerning defensive core and a PDO of 1.030, a tad above the average of 1.00. For the Isles, they hope to be the start of that.
At the end of this tough two-week stretch, the Islanders can put themselves in a class with the Bruins and Flyers, both top teams in the division. But, the onus is on them. They cannot afford to surrender losses to mediocre teams or blow leads late like they did during their 0-3-2 stretch.
The Islanders enter this stretch one point back of the Flyers, a team they can surpass as long as they take care of business.
Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattWatling99