The Islanders may have clinched a playoff spot Tuesday night, but there are still two pivotal games remaining in the regular season. Currently the Eastern Conference’s 6th seed, the Isles could enter the playoffs ranked anywhere between 5th and 8th. As a result, Thursday night’s contest in Philadelphia and Friday night’s in Buffalo will have a huge impact on the team’s first-round playoff matchup.
Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano, who is less than one week away from coaching his first Stanley Cup Playoff Game, doesn’t expect his team to let up the rest of the way.
“Their commitment and their focus over the season is not going to change,” Capuano said following Islanders practice Wednesday. “The guys are playing extremely hard and they’re believing in one another.”
Neither of the Islanders final two opponents will experience playoff hockey this spring, but Tuesday night’s Eastern Conference scoreboard proved the Islanders can’t take any team lightly. All five non-playoff teams won despite playing against teams in the top-8. As for the Islanders next two opponents, the Flyers defeated the No. 2 seed Boston Bruins, while the Sabres surprised top-seeded Pittsburgh. Both teams have a win against the Islanders this season.
“It’s about the pride in the jersey that they wear,” Capuano said of how the Flyers and Sabres will look to close the season. “This is the greatest league in the world and guys are fighting for jobs.”
Among those most looking forward to the playoffs is Islanders forward Frans Nielsen. With 365 regular season games under his belt, the 2002 Islanders draft selection has yet to skate in a postseason contest. He knows this is no time to take a rest as the team aspires for the most favorable standings position it can reach.
“They’re huge games since we want to see if we can get into the fifth spot,” Nielsen said. “We can’t be satisfied and we can’t get any bad habits into our game now. We just have to keep doing what got us here.”
Nielsen’s linemate, Kyle Okposo, was also in the Islanders system for their last playoff appearance in 2007, although he wasn’t with the big club at the time. Drafted in 2006, Okposo played his first games in an Islanders uniform towards the end of the 2007-08 season. With two assists in Tuesday’s game at Carolina, Okposo is riding a season-high, four-game point streak. The St. Paul, Minnesota native now has nine points in his last nine games.
“We don’t want to go into the playoffs limping in,” Okposo said. “We want to go in making sure we’re playing well and staying hot. We know how important these last two games are and we’re not going to take them lightly.”
The Islanders are 8-0-3 since March 24. Their 11-straight games with a point ties the 2001-02 squad for the longest run since the 1981-82 team put together a then-NHL record 15-game winning streak en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
While this year’s squad will run out of games before the streak has a chance to reach 15, they remain confident and focused on getting it to 12 Thursday at Philadelphia.