The New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins have done just enough to remain in the Eastern Conference wild-card race over the last several weeks.
Both teams will have to do a lot more beginning Friday.
The longtime division rivals will open a potentially season-defining stretch Friday night, when the Islanders are slated to host the Penguins at Elmont, N.Y.
The Islanders last played Tuesday, when they lost their third consecutive game by falling to the visiting Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a shootout. The Penguins continued a four-game road trip Tuesday by beating the San Jose Sharks 3-1.
The Penguins’ win snapped a tie with the Islanders for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and underlined the precarious nature of the playoff race and, in particular, the shaky standing of the Islanders.
The Penguins are one point ahead of the second wild-card spot, held by the Washington Capitals. They are also two points ahead of the ninth-place Islanders and three points ahead of the 10th-place Florida Panthers. The Capitals and Panthers were set to meet Thursday.
But the Penguins have four games in hand on the Islanders, whose next seven games are against teams that held at least a share of a playoff spot entering Thursday’s action. The Penguins are slated to host the Islanders on Monday.
The Islanders, who have lost 14 of their last 20 (6-9-5) since Jan. 1, missed a chance to make up some ground by falling to a trio of non-contenders — the Senators, Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens — during their current losing streak. New York collected a point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Canadiens on Saturday.
“We have an opportunity coming up here very shortly to play teams that we’re even with, neck-and-neck with or just somewhat trailing,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert said. “I think it’s a good opportunity for us. I do welcome it.”
The Penguins have been treading water since New Year’s Day, when they have lost nine of 17 (8-6-3). Pittsburgh absorbed its most lopsided loss of the season last Saturday, falling 6-0 to the Los Angeles Kings 6-0, before Sidney Crosby assisted on all three goals in a wire-to-wire victory over the Sharks.
“He had a big game for us,” Pittsburgh head coach Mike Sullivan said of the Penguins’ longtime captain. “I think he recognizes the importance of a response game after a humbling loss in L.A.”
The important games are just beginning as well for the Penguins, who have a three-game homestand beginning Saturday in which their rematch against the Islanders is sandwiched between clashes against the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers. Both teams entered Thursday in sole possession of a playoff spot.
“This is a mentality where every point matters and every game from here on out is really important,” Crosby told reporters Tuesday night. “We have to embrace that and use that to our advantage the best we can.”
–Field Level Media