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Improving Isles top Senators 4-1

by John Kreiser
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- John Tavares has gotten his second wind, and he's carrying the New York Islanders along with him.

Tavares, the first pick in the NHL Entry Draft last summer, had a goal and an assist on Saturday as he and the Islanders continued their strong late-season play with a 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators at the Nassau Coliseum.

Tavares' rookie season has been a three-act play -- he was dynamic at the start, hit a long midseason drought, and is now ending with a flourish. He leads the Islanders with 49 points in 78 games and has 13 in his last nine.

"The (Olympic) break came at a good time for him," Islanders coach Scott Gordon said. "He was beat up, and he was frustrated about not being able to score. Now he's got that second effort, his battle level has been raised, he's competing harder and he knows he's going to get chances and bury them."

Tavares agreed that he's found a better level of play.

"I think I've been feeling pretty good for a while," he said. "I'm playing hard and things are starting to go my way a little more offensively. I'm feeling good shooting the puck and making plays. Mentally I got a little refreshed during the break and refocused. I changed my approach on some things, and it's working."

Tavares, Blake Comeau and Sean Bergenheim have clicked as a line over the past few weeks. Comeau had a pair of assists and Bergenheim's third-period goal off an assist from Tavares completed the Isles' scoring.

"Blake has really come on the second half of the year and played great for us," Tavares said. "Me and him have become good buddies off the ice as well, and I think that's really helped our chemistry. As of late, Bergy's starting to find his stride too. He's playing a real physical game and contributing offensively."

New York also got another strong performance in goal from Martin Biron, who stopped 28 shots for his third consecutive victory, losing his shutout on Matt Cullen's goal with 6:33 remaining in the game. He is 6-0-2 in eight starts since the Olympic break.

The Isles won for the fourth time in five games and improved to 7-3-1 in their last 11, keeping their slim playoff hopes alive. New York has 76 points -- a 15-point improvement from last season -- leaving it six behind eighth-place Philadelphia with four games remaining.

"A season is made up of a lot of highs and lows," said Biron, who went six weeks without seeing NHL action at midseason but has worked his way into at least an even share of the starts with Dwayne Roloson. "What you have to do is to be able to limit those lows to one or two games and be able to get back on it and try to ride the highs as much as you can.

"Right now we're frustrating teams, we're getting some goals, killing penalties -- we're doing a lot of good things."

The Senators had been doing a lot of good things -- they came to Long Island with a six-game winning streak. The latest win, in a shootout over Carolina on Thursday, clinched a playoff berth. They are all but locked into fifth place in the East, and coach Cory Clouston wasn't thrilled with what he saw in his team's first post-clinching performance.

"We had chances in the first period and we didn't bury them," he said. "That gave them a little bit of momentum, and that was the difference in the game.

After a scoreless first period that saw few good chances for either team, the Islanders blew the game open with three goals in the first half of the second, including a pair in two-minute span, beginning with Tavares' goal at 1:19.

On a 3-on-2 rush, Kyle Okposo fed Comeau, who dropped a pass to the oncoming Tavares, racing down the middle. He got the puck in the slot and whipped a 20-foot wrister past Brian Elliott for his 22nd goal of the season -- but only his seventh at the Nassau Coliseum and his first at home in 17 games.

Rookie defenseman Dylan Reese made it 2-0 exactly two minutes later. Richard Park kept the puck in at the line and dropped it to Reese, whose bad-angled slapper from the top of the right circle went off Elliott's pad and into the net.

Another of the Isles' young defensemen, Jack Hillen, added to their lead with a do-it-yourself goal at 9:46. Hillen picked up a pass along the right wall in the Ottawa zone, spun his way past Nick Foligno, cut to the high slot and fired a wrister that got past a screened Elliott for his third goal of the season and first since Jan. 23.

"We didn't give him enough support," Clouston said of Elliott, who was in goal for all six wins during the streak that carried the Senators back into the postseason. "He's been there for us, and we didn't give him the support he needed."

Biron made his best stop with 3:20 left in the second period when he got his pad on Peter Regin's blast from the right circle, then covered the rebound before Regin could get to it. Biron also made a blocker stop on Regin from the slot with 10 seconds left in the period -- a half-minute after Trent Hunter hit the post with a wrister on a 2-on-1 break that would have made it 4-0.

Biron robbed Daniel Alfredsson from the slot 45 seconds into the third period and caught a break not long after when he was beaten cleanly by Chris Campoli's slap shot from the right point, only to have the shot ring off the post.

New York removed any doubt about the outcome at 4:13, when Tavares picked up Comeau's miss off the end boards and backhanded the puck to Bergenheim for a tap-in. Cullen's goal served only to spoil Biron's shutout bid.

"We frustrated them," Tavares said. "We play a hard game, caused turnovers, battled hard and kept throwing pucks at the net. We kept doing the right things, which leads to success. We're building confidence here."

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