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New York Post
Islanders in ideal spot with playoff berth within reach
By Ethan Sears,
WASHINGTON — Lane Lambert wouldn’t take the bait.
“Well, I know it’s cliché …” the Islanders coach started to say, before delving into a spiel about only looking to the next game that was, indeed, cliché.
That was Monday night, after the combination of an Islanders win and a Panthers loss put six points between Lambert’s team and the playoff cutline with seven games left in their season. Florida will play eight more times, and the Sabres (eight points behind), will play nine more times, so both of the other contenders have some hope.
The Islanders, though, are at the point at which it would take a stunning collapse to avoid returning to the playoffs after falling short last season.
As they embark on a three-game trip that begins Wednesday at Washington and includes games against Tampa Bay and Carolina, the Islanders can afford to be less than perfect for the first time in a long time. Clinching the playoffs on this trip is unlikely, but not impossible, if the Islanders run the table and get help from Florida and Buffalo.
More plausible, though, is a scenario the Islanders might even prefer: clinching on home ice. They will play three of their last four games at UBS Arena. Anything is possible, though, if they can replicate the effort they put in during their 5-1 win over the Devils on Monday.
It was natural following a highly physical game in which space was at a premium to wonder whether the match felt like a playoff game. And it was a little surprising when Pierre Engvall, a veteran of heartbreaking first-round losses with the Maple Leafs, answered: “Honestly, no, I don’t think so.
“It’s way more physical in a playoff game,” Engvall said. “But still, it’s a hard game. We did a good job. I think if we keep doing what we did today, we’re gonna be really hard [to beat].”
Even so, the Islanders imposed themselves physically against the Devils, with the official hit count reading 24-13. Take the number itself with a grain of salt, but the nearly 2:1 ratio was reflective of the run of play.
It was reminiscent of how the Islanders played during their recent playoff runs, raising speculation they just might catch lightning in a bottle yet again.
“Physicality, it’s a part of our game,” Lambert said, “it’s part of our game every night we possibly can, and I thought that [Monday] more so than the last game, we established our forecheck a little better. That led to some more physicality.”
Now they’ll need to replicate that effort.
“Headed on the road for some tough games, it’s something we can build on momentum-wise and we know what it’s gonna take to be successful,” Kyle Palmieri said after scoring twice and notching an assist versus the Devils. “We’re going up against three good teams the rest of the week. It’s gonna be exciting for us.”
The Islanders have struggled against this particular trio of opponents this season. They lost twice at home to the Capitals including blowing a 3-0 lead to fall in overtime in the middle of January. They also were blown out twice at home by the Hurricanes after an early-season win at Carolina, and lost their only match so far against the Lightning, in October.
The game in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday, which will be played on a 23-hour turnaround, could be a preview of a first-round playoff series. Carolina likely will face the first wild-card team, the spot the Islanders currently occupy.
Not that anyone in their dressing room would dare look that far ahead.
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