By Jerry Beach
Special to NYI Hockey Now
After a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals in the spring of 2019 and a run to the Eastern Conference finals in the bubble last summer, nobody needs to remind the New York Islanders there’s no preparation for the intensity of playoff hockey — not even in 2021, when the regular season consists of 56 games played entirely in the division.
But the Islanders got a pretty good glimpse this week of what things should be like next month.
“You look at our games here of late — we’re playing desperate teams,” Barry Trotz said Friday night after the Islanders’ four-game winning streak ended with a 4-1 loss to the Rangers at Nassau Coliseum. The defeat, coupled with the Capitals’ 4-3 win over the Sabres, cost the Islanders sole possession of first place in the East.
“We played Washington, it was a real heavy game, emotionally draining. Philly comes in and they are extremely desperate and they played a very good game. And then the Rangers are in the same boat.”
The Islanders went 2-1 against the Capitals, Flyers and Rangers despite scoring just four goals in the three games. On Tuesday, with the New York Islanders and Capitals playing five days after they combined for 12 goals at the Coliseum, Brock Nelson scored the only goal with 6:55 left. Nelson and Jordan Eberle scored 1:03 apart early in the first on Thursday before the Islanders lost the momentum and required a Nelson goal in the shootout to edge the Flyers, 3-2.
“It was a playoff feel and teams are bringing their ‘A’ games right now because the margin for error for them is less than us and the urgency level is high,” Trotz said.
On Friday, goalies Semyon Varlamov and Alexandar Georgiev combined for 63 saves and stopped the first 28 shots they faced, which lent a certain desperation to the proceedings as the near-misses piled up and added to the sense that any mistake might be the one that decides the game.
Mika Zibanejad had a wide-open look as he bolted from the penalty box — he drew the game’s only penalty for boarding Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the 10:56 mark of the first — when he caught up to a clearing pass that sailed by a sliding Ryan Pulock. But the puck bounced off Zibanejad’s stick as he bore in on Varlamov. Zibanejad recovered and passed to Chris Kreider, whose shot caromed off the top post.
Georgiev turned back point-blank shots by Jean-Gabriel Pageau with a little under five minutes left in the first and by Mathew Barzal four minutes into the second. A turnover off a clearing pass from behind the net by Varlamov resulted in Alexis Lafreniere scoring at 6:05 to give the Rangers a lead they’d never relinquish. Colin Blackwell scored fewer than four minutes later.
“Last night (and) tonight, we had pockets of the way we need to play, but not enough of it,” Andy Greene said.
Nelson had a goal waved off due to high sticking less than a minute before Greene scored his first regular-season goal for the New York Islanders. Cal Clutterbuck had a chance to tie the score early in the third, but his shot rang off the far post.
That was the last real threat for the Islanders, who fell behind 3-1 when K’Andre Miller scored with 8:12 remaining and looked heavy-legged even after pulling Varlamov with more than three minutes left. Zibanejad added an empty netter with 1:12 to go.
“Pucks didn’t go in for us tonight,” Trotz said. “If we get it 2-2, I think maybe it’s a different story. But it never happened on our push and they got their third goal and that’s all they needed.”
With one goal in their last 117 minutes and 47 seconds, Saturday’s off-day arrives at the perfect time for the Islanders — especially with the Rangers, who moved past the Flyers into fifth place and moved within five points of the Bruins for the final playoff spot, returning to the Coliseum for another playoff-type game Sunday night.
“We’re just a little bit off — that’s fine, it’s part of this long season that you’re not always going to be at your best every night,” Trotz said. “Not the result we wanted, obviously, but hopefully we regroup and Sunday we go from there.”