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Islanders face huge challenge with schedule

One point out of second wild card, New York will play 18 of final 26 games on road

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- The New York Islanders could ignore the elephant in the room Thursday because the New York Rangers were at Barclays Center and the rivalry took center stage in what was arguably their biggest game of the season to date.

They delivered in the moment with what coach Doug Weight agreed was their biggest win of the season, a 4-2 result that put them one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

The Islanders can't ignore the elephant anymore. It's their schedule for the next three-plus weeks. It's intimidating.

Ten road games, including nine in a row after they finish a weekend home-and-home against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday.

The challenge is massive for a team that is 7-12-4 on the road this season. How they handle it will determine if they're a legitimate playoff contender or merely a streaky midseason pretender.

Video: NYR@NYI: Gionta steals puck, sets up Ladd in the slot

"It's a challenge we've talked about," Weight said. "Obviously [Thursday night] was a huge focus on a home game. Be homers [Thursday night], but we gotta be better on the road. You talk about 200 by 85, it's a rink, but we gotta delve into it as coaches and we gotta challenge these players.

"We have [eight] more home games, so it's going to be a huge challenge."

The schedule is partially why the win against the Rangers was so big. That it came on the heels of what forward Anders Lee called an embarrassing thumping against the Maple Leafs, who beat the Islanders 7-1 at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, was also noteworthy.

The Islanders had a chance to move into a playoff spot when they went to Toronto. They played like a team that had no business being in that position, like a team that doesn't know how to win on the road.

They can't look like that team anymore.

"I don't think we're too worried about playing at home or on the road," forward Andrew Ladd said. "You use the confidence from game to game to play that exact same way no matter what rink you're in."

If that's going to be their mentality then all the Islanders have to do is take the game they play against the Rangers and copy it for their remaining 18 road games.

They were relentless on the forecheck and it led to two goals.

They were determined on the penalty kill and it led to a shorthanded goal from Nikolay Kulemin.

Video: NYR@NYI: Greiss denies Kreider late to preserve lead

Thomas Greiss made the momentum-changing saves he needed to make.

Rarely used role players like forward Stephen Gionta and defenseman Scott Mayfield, who hadn't played since Jan. 31, played with an edge and a purpose enough to disrupt what the Rangers were trying to do when they were on the ice.

High impact players like John Tavares, Ladd and Lee contributed on the scoresheet. Ladd had two goals, pushing his season total to 14, including six in the past 10 games. Tavares had assists on goals from Lee and Kulemin. He was a force on the penalty kill.

"It certainly is contagious," Weight said. "You try to talk about it, just let that next line feed off your first shift, let the guy next to you feed off of your energy, your positivity and your grit. If you don't have a deep effort against the New York Rangers you're not going to beat 'em."

The Islanders need a deep effort in every one of their remaining 26 games to make the playoffs.

They put themselves in this position by being below average for the first 41 games, 16-17-8 overall and 5-9-4 on the road. They also put themselves in this position by going 10-3-2 in their past 15 games, including 9-3-2 since Weight took over for Jack Capuano on Jan. 17.

All that did was get them close. Now the hard work starts.

The Devils won't be an easy opponent this weekend even though they're behind the Islanders in the standings. Next week they play at the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Columbus Blue Jackets before getting a four-day break, which they are expected to spend at home.

Video: NYR@NYI: Ladd seals win with empty-net goal

The Islanders then head back out for six games in 10 days, against the Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues from March 2-11.

If they're still standing when it's over they'll have a month, 15 games, to secure a playoff spot.

"It's not a sometimes February," Weight said. "Sometimes you're in those dog days in February and you've got a 12-point lead on the team behind you or you're in the cellar and you're going through those dog days. That can't be it for us. It's got to be an April, May mentality."

The elephant in the room will crush them if it's not.

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