NEWARK, N.J. -- New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano feels it isn't so much about X's and O's this time of the year, but more about the will and compete level exhibited by your hockey club down the stretch.
In other words, the intestinal fortitude and competitiveness that Capuano witnessed from his charges on Monday against the New Jersey Devils in a workmanlike 3-1 victory before 17,625 at Prudential Center.
The gritty Islanders received goals from Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic and John Tavares while getting 24 saves from goalie Evgeni Nabokov to continue their late-season surge in an attempt to secure a Stanley Cup Playoff berth for the first time in six seasons.
"All the games are big at this stage, but it really doesn't come down to structure a whole lot," Capuano said. "It comes down to the will to compete and the desperation in your game. I think there are a lot of teams with that same mindset. We didn't have it in the second period [when the Devils held an 11-6 shot advantage], but responded well in the third to close it out."
Tavares' 22nd goal of the season at the 9:13 mark of the third gave the Islanders (17-16-3) a 3-1 lead.
"I think we've shown as team that we've grown together and have been pretty resilient," Tavares said. "A lot of guys are maturing and coming around and playing big roles."
With his team on the power play, Lubomir Visnovsky centered a pass through the crease from the left circle that deflected off Martin Brodeur's stick to Tavares in the right circle. The center then easily ripped a shot over a fallen Brodeur. The goal was the eighth for the Islanders with the man advantage against the Devils in five games this season.
The Devils would pull Brodeur with just under two minutes remaining in the third, but the Islanders defense, backstopped by Nabokov, denied New Jersey's final push.
"We defended well," Capuano said. "With guys like [David] Clarkson and [Dainius] Zubrus, it's easy to clutch and grab since their big guys. But we defending well and properly; it was a good hockey game."
Nabokov, who was making his sixth start in 11 days, recorded his 17th victory of the season. The 37-year-old kept his team ahead, 2-1, on a splendid left pad save 6:57 into the third when he denied Patrik Elias off a ticketed tip-in at the right post. The victory moves the Islanders two points closer to the Devils in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Devils are currently seventh in the conference with 15 wins and 39 points. The Islanders, seeking their first playoff berth since 2006-07, are ninth with 17 wins and 37 points.
"We have to find 60 minutes … we have to be a team that plays that type of relentless hockey for 60 minutes," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "You're not going to win this time of year playing less than that."
DeBoer was referring to the fact the Devils found themselves behind, 2-0, just 7:14 into the first when Bailey and Hamonic connected for first-period goals.
"It's disappointing," DeBoer said of the early deficit. "I don't have an answer why. We sure weren't taking them lightly. Really, that ended up being the game. We have trouble digging ourselves out of holes that big."
The Devils, who are 8-4-2 against the Atlantic Division this season, dropped to 3-11-5 when allowing the first goal of the game. On the contrary, New Jersey is 12-1-4 when scoring first.
"It's huge to get that lead against these guys," Tavares said. "The way they can lock things down and the way Marty can play the puck with a lead, it's big to get up on them. Especially in their building because it makes them push a little bit and work a little bit more. They came at us hard in the second but we did a decent job of holding our own. We're playing much better at the start of games lately, and that's been a reason for our success."
The Islanders, who closed out their four-game road swing with a 3-1-0 record, will face the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
"We're back on home ice [Tuesday] so we have to play well and come out with the urgency and making sure we stick to the details that make a difference for us," Tavares said. "We want to show our fans we're serious about making a push."
Brodeur, who finished with 18 saves, dropped to 2-1-3 since returning to the lineup from a pinched nerve in his neck on March 21.
"The implications of the game were obviously large and to go out and kind of lay an egg in the first there is tough," Devils forward Ryan Carter said.
The Devils were basically two players short for much of the game. Tom Kostopoulos was forced to exit the game 11:22 into the first after taking a tremendous right punch to the chin from Islanders forward Matt Martin during a fight in the neutral zone.
"That is tough to see," Carter said of Kostopoulos' injury. "It's part of the game, but I don't think either side likes to see it. It took the wind out of our sail for the rest of the first period for sure. There were a lot of worried guys until we saw him. He was talking and answering."
DeBoer informed the media after the game that Kostopoulos, who was sticking up for teammate Stephen Gionta at the time he dropped the gloves with Martin, was "going to be all right."
Additionally, center Travis Zajac was limited to just 13:31 of ice time while he tried to play through the flu, but was vomiting throughout and missed most of the third.
Following a lackluster start, the Devils showed some desperation in the second and were rewarded as Alexei Ponikarovsky pulled his team within 2-1 after backhanding a pass from Patrik Elias past Nabokov at the 8:01 mark. Elias made the play possible when he took a pass from Zajac in the neutral zone and skated hard down his left wing before curling toward the net and feathering a pass to Ponikarovsky in the slot. The goal by Ponikarovsky, who hit the crossbar on a big shot 4:42 into the second, was his first since Feb. 15.
The Islanders extended their lead to 2-0 at the 7:14 mark of the first when Hamonic collected a faceoff win by Frans Nielsen in the left circle and skated just above the opposite circle before unleashing a wrist shot from 50 feet that beat an apparently screened Brodeur high on the short side.
Bailey opened the scoring just 52 seconds into the first when he took a feed from Nielsen off a 2-on-1 breakout against Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky before backhanding an attempt past Brodeur.
"This is why you play … we want to make a serious push here and make the playoffs," Bailey said. "But we're still going to take it one day at a time. There are so many teams in the hunt, so we just have to keep finding ways to win."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
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