After ending the home schedule on a high note Tuesday with a 5-2 win against Florida, the Islanders are back to the grind of the road. The team boarded a plane to Toronto Wednesday to kick off an eight-day road trip to conclude the season.
With only five games remaining, the Islanders have 49 points – one less than sixth-place Ottawa, and three more than the eighth-place New York Rangers and ninth-place Winnipeg. Of the teams on the outside of the playoff bubble, the Jets are – mathematically speaking – the most dangerous to the Islanders postseason hopes. The two teams will play Saturday night in Manitoba in the second game of the trip, for a potential four-point swing that could either give the Islanders real breathing room or completely tighten the screws on an already crowded playoff race.
But Matt Martin says the team can’t look too far ahead. Echoing the sentiment heard around the room over the last several weeks, he says Thursday’s showdown with the Maple Leafs is the most important game of the season.
“Right now, we’re just focusing on the game against Toronto,” Martin said. “We’ll take this one game at a time. There are a lot of big games coming up. These last five games on the road are obviously huge.”
While a lot of eyes are on the Rangers and Jets – teams who can conceivably catch and surpass the Islanders in the standings – Martin says the focus within the room is on the teams they are still looking up at. The Islanders are 9-1-2 in their last 12 games and are within four points of the fifth-place Maple Leafs.
“If we keep winning hockey games, we’re going to be able to catch teams,” Martin said. “We have a real opportunity to catch Toronto and Ottawa in the standings. We don’t want to focus on teams behind us. If we do what we need to do, they won’t be able to catch us.”
After Toronto and Winnipeg, the Islanders head back to the States for three games against teams that are currently on the outside looking in – Carolina (April 23), Philadelphia (April 25) and Buffalo (April 26). Head Coach Jack Capuano says the hostile road crowds in all five markets should make each game a battle.
“We know that every period, every shift is going to be harder than the last,” Capuano said. “We can’t get away from what we do and how we play. We know how these teams are going to play. We know the buildings are going to be packed. There’s great atmospheres in these buildings, but we’ve just got to concentrate on what we have to do.”
The Islanders are the only team in the league to finish on such an extended road trip, something that on paper could present a real test. But the club is 12-5-2 away from Nassau Coliseum this season, and 6-0-2 overall during the month of April.
Add Josh Bailey to the list of Islanders happy to be playing meaningful hockey this late in the spring. The fifth-year pro has 324 games of NHL experience, but none in the postseason. Bailey sees a confident group heading into the final stretch.
“You can’t control the scheduling and that’s just the way it worked out,” Bailey said of the five-game trip. “I think we’re comfortable on the road and we’ve played well away from home thus far. We’re going to need to keep doing that to make sure we find our way into the playoffs.”
The Islanders entered March with 21 games under their belt and in 13th place, one point above the Eastern Conferenc e cellar. Twenty-two games later, they control their own destiny in seventh place, closer to the top than to the bottom of the standings. And a lot closer to their first postseason berth in six years.