On verge of clinching playoff spot, Islanders host Rangers

NHL Hockey

A resounding and much-needed win Thursday night means the New York Islanders are no longer openly flirting with a stunning collapse. The Islanders can remove any doubt about their playoff plans — and deliver a crippling blow to an archrival’s postseason hopes — with a repeat performance Saturday night.

The Islanders will look to clinch their third straight trip to the playoffs Saturday, when they host the New York Rangers in the finale of a home-and-home series in Uniondale, N.Y.

Both teams were off Friday after the Islanders steadied themselves and damaged the Rangers’ playoff aspirations Thursday night with a 4-0 win. Goalie Semyon Varlamov stopped all 25 shots he faced in authoring his NHL- and career-high sixth shutout, including his third of the season at Madison Square Garden — the first time a goalie has ever blanked the Rangers three times in a single season in their home arena.

The win stopped a three-game losing streak for the Islanders (30-15-5, 65 points), who began the skid with a share of first place in the East Division. By faceoff Thursday, the Islanders were alone in third in the East, a point ahead of the Boston Bruins and seven points ahead of the Rangers (26-19-6, 58 points) heading into their head-to-head set.

The result Thursday changed the perceptions for both teams. The Islanders maintained their lead on the Bruins (29-14-6, 64 points) while cutting their magic number for clinching a playoff spot to four, meaning they can punch their ticket with a regulation win Saturday. The Islanders, who reached the Eastern Conference finals in the bubble last summer, haven’t made the playoffs in three straight seasons since 2002-04.

“The locker room’s buzzing right now,” said right winger Oliver Wahlstrom, who scored the Islanders’ second goal. “That’s a really big win for us. We’re grinding a little bit the past week and just to see everyone smile again. … Big win for sure.”

For the Rangers, who closed in on the Bruins and Islanders by going 16-7-3 since March 13, Thursday was a reminder that they are running out of time and that the loss might be an experience that could pay dividends in future seasons.

Regarding the top five teams in the East, no clubs have played more games than the Rangers and second-place Pittsburgh Penguins, each of whom have played 51 contests. The Islanders have a game in hand on the Rangers while the Bruins have two games in hand, so even a sweep of the final five games will leave the Rangers needing a lot of help.

“They’re a team that’s in the playoff race and a playoff spot for a reason,” Rangers defenseman Adam Fox said Thursday night. “They’re an older team and have experiences in games like this, so I think it’s just good for us to learn from these games against a team like this and just get better for the future.”

The Islanders have won five of the seven meetings with the Rangers this season.

–Field Level Media

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