TORONTO - The New York Islanders were written off by many after a seven-game winless skid, but that's old news to the players wearing the uniforms.
"We saw the improbable last year when we were left for dead," star goalie Rick DiPietro said Thursday night after backstopping his team past the Toronto Maple Leafs. "There's still a lot of hockey left."
The Isles won their last four games of the season last year to sneak into the playoffs and they're not about to give up now with 24 games left in the regular season. Ruslan Fedotenko scored two of his team's four power-play goals and the Islanders beat the Leafs 5-4 Thursday night to pull within four points of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"This is a big win for us," said Fedotenko. "Everyone is fighting for a playoff spot and we need these points."
Mike Comrie and Bryan Berard also had power-play tallies while Freddy Meyer added an empty-netter for the Islanders (26-25-7), who have won two games in a row following a seven-game winless streak (0-6-1).
"There's still belief in this room," said Comrie. "Ted (Nolan) and the coaching staff have us focused on the game at hand. We're not looking too far ahead."
Alex Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker scored for the Leafs (23-27-9), who dropped to 29th overall in the 30-team NHL after Tampa Bay beat Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Leafs are eight points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 23 games to play in the regular season and more importantly have five games left before the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline.
Time is running out.
"Basically, that's what's going on right now," said Ponikarovsky. "But we can't feel sorry for ourselves. We still have to play. You can't just give up and do nothing."
The Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,227 was as quiet as they come in the opening two periods, seemingly resigned to the fact their team was playing out the string. But they got behind their team in the third period as the Leafs tried to rally but just fell short.
"We should've won that hockey game, but we didn't play well," said Stajan. "We can't come in here and say we played as well as we could, because we didn't."
DiPietro made 27 saves in the Islanders net while Vesa Toskala stopped 24 of 28 shots.
Isles GM Garth Snow has some tough decisions to make ahead of the trade deadline, with several of his players slated for unrestricted free agency July 1, including Comrie, Fedotenko and Miro Satan. Will they stick around for a playoff push or be dealt?
"You can't control that," said Fedotenko. "Right now fighting for a playoff spot is the only thing that matters. What management does is out of my hands. ... I would like to stay on the Island."
Berard opened the scoring on a power play with 3:48 to go in the first period, busting into the slot and re-directing a Satan pass past Toskala.
Tucker got credit for the tying goal at 7:51 of the middle period. Stajan's innocent pass towards the slot deflected off both Tucker and Isles defenceman Aaron Johnson and skidded between DiPietro's legs. It briefly woke up a dreadfully silent crowd.
It got even louder a minute and a half later when the captain Sundin slid in a rebound to give Toronto its only lead of the game.
But then the Isles power play went to work as the Leafs took three consecutive penalties. Fedotenko tied it 2-2 at 14:36 when he banged in a puck that was sitting on the goal line after Josef Vasicek hit the goal post. Comrie, with his 17th of the season, put the Isles back in front 3-2 with a power-play goal at 17:25 when he took Satan's nifty pass across the slot and slid it an inch past the goal-line under Toskala.
The Isles took a key 4-2 lead 4:29 into the third period when Fedotenko scored a nearly identical goal to his first one on the night, banging home a puck in the crease behind Toskala on yet another New York man advantage.
The Leafs didn't go away without a fight, Stajan whipping around in the slot and sliding home his team's third goal on a Toronto power play at 10:16. The Leafs had a glorious chance to tie it when handed a two-man advantage just moments later but couldn't deliver the tying goal.
Meyer, with his first goal of the year, scored in the empty net with 51.5 seconds to make it 5-3, seemingly ending all the scoring. But Ponikarovsky pounced on a rebound in the slot with 18:3 seconds left to cut the lead to one goal once more. Too little, too late.
Toronto went 1-for-5 with the man advantage while the Islanders went 4-for-7.
Notes - The Islanders improved to 18-0-1 on the season when leading after two periods ... Forward Kyle Wellwood, defenceman Ian White and tough guy Wade Belak were healthy scratches for Toronto ... The Isles found out before the game that veteran defenceman Brendan Witt is out 2-to-4 weeks with an MCL sprain. He joined injured blue-liners Bruno Gervais (strained oblique) and Chris Campoli (season-ending shoulder surgery) on the sidelines. Forwards Mike Sillinger (hip) and Shawn Bates (hip surgery) were also out ... It was the opener of a five-game homestand for the Leafs, who next host Boston on Saturday ... The Isles next play Atlanta at home on Saturday.