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Islanders use quick start to beat Panthers

by Brian Compton /

UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Hours before his New York Islanders were to play the down-and-out Florida Panthers, Isles coach Jack Capuano was asked if his club was heading into a "trap game" that precedes a five-game road trip to end the regular season.

"If it is, we have problems," Capuano said.

No problems here.

Michael Grabner scored twice and Mark Streit had a goal and an assist as the Islanders chased Jacob Markstrom and cruised to a 5-2 victory in their regular-season finale at a raucous Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

There's a good chance this old barn on Hempstead Turnpike will host at least a couple of more games this spring, as New York (22-16-5) remains in seventh place in the Eastern Conference and is closing in on its first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007.

Matt Moulson and Radek Martinek also scored for the Islanders, who are 14-5-3 since March 1 and begin their crucial season-ending five-game road trip Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Isles are 12-5-2 on the road this season.

"We've been good, but we have to continue to be good," said goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who made 26 saves for his 21st win of the season. "Nothing is given. We have to fight for it. The reason we've been good is because of our efforts, because of our system, because we've been doing all the little things right. That's why we've been winning."

As for the 15,922 who were in attendance Tuesday, they certainly don't want this to be their team's last home game until October. Chants of "We want playoffs" rained down several times, and the players heard the message loud and clear.

"It gives you goose bumps," Grabner said. "It gets you motivated and it makes you want to keep playing for another couple of months."

Florida (13-23-6) suffered its third straight loss. Dmitry Kulikov and Marcel Goc scored for the Panthers, who are dead last in the League standings with 32 points. Their swing through the metropolitan area continues Thursday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

"There was a playoff feel about it, at least on their side,'' Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "If you aren't believing it, what's going to happen is what happened. Every game we play right now is going to be against a team incredibly hungry for something moving forward.''

The Islanders broke a scoreless tie 8:01 into the game on Moulson's 14th goal of the season. Shortly after New York killed a holding penalty on Josh Bailey, Moulson was able to park himself in front of the net, where Thomas Hickey's shot hit Matt Martin's stick and Moulson's knee before going past Markstrom to give the Isles a 1-0 lead.

Florida would pay dearly as Erik Gudbranson's was assessed a double minor for high-sticking Moulson at 12:55 of the first, just 44 seconds after Tyson Strachan was penalized for cross-checking Colin McDonald. New York capitalized on the two-man advantage when Streit made it 2-0 with 6:01 left by one-timing Kyle Okposo's feed from the right point past Markstrom for his sixth goal of the season.

New York struck again with Gudbranson still in the box when Grabner tallied his 14th goal at 16:47. Andrew MacDonald's home-run pass from deep in the Isles' zone landed right on Grabner's tape just outside the Panthers' blue line, and the speedy winger skated in alone on Markstrom and fired home a wrister to make it 3-0. Nabokov also earned an assist on the tally -- his fourth of the season.

Florida got on the board via the power play with 1:48 to go in the first. With Casey Cizikas in the box, Kulikov took a pass from Tomas Fleischmann and ripped a wrist shot from the slot past Nabokov (26 saves) to trim New York's lead to 3-1.

But the Isles wouldn't allow the Panthers to carry any momentum into the second, as Martinek and Grabner scored 14 seconds apart to build a four-goal cushion. Martinek made it 4-1 when he ripped Jesse Joensuu's feed past Markstrom from the right point at 3:19 before Grabner ended Markstrom's night when he picked off Brian Campbell's pass and let go a backhand shot over the Panthers' goaltender at 3:33.

It was exactly the response the Islanders had to have after Kulikov's tally late in the first – the type of response that perhaps had been missing over the past couple of seasons.

"That's a big goal for them," said Capuano, who became the franchise's second-winningest coach with his 82nd victory. "We have to regroup. There can't be any panicking. There's going to be surges, there's going to be momentum changes, there's going to be adversity you're going to face – especially as we go on the road here. We just have to make sure we stick to our game plan."

While the boisterous crowd chanted, "We want playoffs!" after Grabner's second goal, Dineen opted to replace Markstrom with veteran Scott Clemmensen. Markstrom allowed five goals on 18 shots.

"There's so many small things that have an impact on the outcome of the game," Markstrom said. "It's just tough right now. The game just ended, but it's embarrassing. It's never fun to get pulled as a goalie. Anybody's that's been a goalie and been pulled, it's embarrassing. It's tough."

Goc cut New York's lead to 5-2 at 7:44 of the second, as Nabokov came out to challenge a shot but lost his balance in front of the net, allowing Goc to easily tap Tomas Kopecky's feed into an empty net for his sixth goal of the season.

Cizikas suffered an upper-body injury blocking a shot in the second period and did not return, but Capuano couldn't elaborate after the game. Bailey also was seen limping off the ice at the end of the game, but the severity of his injury is unknown.

Florida was forced to play without forward Peter Mueller, who left right before the game to be with his wife, who was set to give birth to the couple's first child. Strachan suffered an upper-body injury in the second period and did not return.


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