The New York Islanders finally returned to playing their brand of hockey Tuesday night — and in the nick of time for the three-game series against the Washington Capitals that may determine more than just the East Division champion.
The Islanders and Capitals are scheduled to battle for first place Thursday night, when New York hosts Washington in a battle of longtime rivals in Uniondale, N.Y.
The Islanders moved into a tie for first place with the Capitals on Tuesday night, when Josh Bailey had his first two-goal game in more than two years in a 6-1 win over the visiting New York Rangers. Washington hasn’t played since Sunday, when it fell to the host Boston Bruins, 6-3.
The two teams are tied with the exact same record — 29-13-4 for 62 points with 10 games left in the season. But if Thursday’s clash is decided in regulation, the loser could fall into third place and run the risk of losing home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The third-place Pittsburgh Penguins, who are scheduled to play the skidding New Jersey Devils on Thursday night, are just one point behind the Islanders and Capitals. In addition, the Bruins enter Thursday just four points out of first.
“Any one of the four teams could win the division — it’s that close and it’s going to come down to the last 10 games and how you play,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said. “It 100 percent is in our hands on how it goes down the stretch. But that can be said for the other three teams as well.”
The Capitals lead the season series 3-2-0 and have outscored the Islanders 16-15, although New York has won the last two games.
“It’s not going to be easy — I think Washington and us have had some tough games this year,” Bailey said. “And I’m sure Thursday will be no different.”
The win over the Rangers represented a much-needed change of pace and return to form for the Islanders, who scored just five goals in their previous five games while going 2-3-0 with overtime wins over the Rangers and Flyers.
On Tuesday, the Islanders raced out to a 3-0 lead in a span of just over eight minutes spanning the first and second periods before adding three goals in fewer than four minutes in the third.
“They don’t always come easy at this time when everyone’s trying to make a push to make the playoffs and we’re just trying to keep our spot,” Islanders center Jean-Gabriel Pageau said. “I thought we came out tonight as a brotherhood. We came in, and since the puck was dropped, we really showed what we have. We played the right way for 60 minutes and we got the result we wanted.”
The Capitals headed into their three-day break off an inconsistent stretch. Washington is 6-6-0 in its last 12 games, a span in which it has earned wins by five and seven goals yet also lost three times by three goals and once by four goals.
The Capitals spotted the Bruins a two-goal, first-period lead Sunday before scoring three goals in just 5:04 before Boston finished the game with four unanswered tallies.
“I don’t think that we ever stopped trying to pursue that game and it just didn’t happen for us,” Laviolette said.
–Field Level Media
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