It's inevitable. At this point in the season, you can't look at tonight's 7th-vs.-15th (or more broadly, 15th-vs.-30th) matchup without thinking: 1) It's two points the Isles have to bank, and 2) Oh boy, I hope they don't take it as a given.
Now honestly, there is no risk of scenario two happening. The Islanders know what's at stake and it's resulted in an impressive level of focus and attention to detail during this 8-1-2 run. However, the contest will still be seen as a potential "trap" game because the go-to narrative in the event of a loss will be, "Oh, they took that last-place club lightly." (Hey, we were even talking "trap" last meeting, but the Isles' performance has really taken off since then.)
The 12th-place Flyers beat the 2nd-place Canadiens 7-4 in Montreal last night. Those results happen. All the Isles can do is keep doing what they're doing, which is to say play in a way that minimizes the chances of such disappointment.
Islanders (21-16-5, 7th/E) vs. Panthers (13-22-6, 15th/E)
7 p.m. EDT | MSG+ | Audio: NHL - WRHU
Nassau [gloriously unsponsored] Veterans Mem. Coliseum
Waiting for Dale to change the litter: Litter Box Cats
The Panthers' PK has been awful (a league-worst 74%), and their 5-on-5 goal ratio of .62 has been well at the bottom of the league.
So how could the Panthers pull off an upset? Well, they have a young goalie who can give you fits, they're actually a decent possession team at least in close/tied situations, and their powerplay converts at around 20%.
The Isles know. Oh, they know.
"I think being down the stretch here, it's been exciting playing in these games and winning. We've got to keep winning here to make sure that we hold our spot. It's fun, though. I think we're enjoying the moment, but we know at the same time we haven't accomplished anything yet. We've still got quite a few big games to go here."
John Tavares, in the same nhl.com article:
"You need everybody going and you need contributions from everybody. We have guys stepping up every night, and that makes a huge difference. We just seem to have a good understanding -- individually, and as a team -- of what we have to do to be ready to play every night."
Finally, Thomas Hickey via the club's Twitter:
"Any team can beat any team right now. The Panthers sre a good team & are going to be ready. Guys are out to prove themselves."
Even if things don't go their way tonight, I like their chances of getting the job done in the final six. Their approach lately has been refreshing.
- Here's audio from Jack Capuano's morning scrum, where he says the team has talked about limiting distractions as the playoff buzz escalates. Later on, he also goes into opportunities players have gotten with the Isles, from Moulson and Parenteau to Aucoin and McDonald.
- Evgeni Nabokov starts in goal, while Kevin Poulin ponders the meaning of life, liberty, and the Oxford comma.
- Radek Martinek is in for Matt Carkner.
- Arthur Staple of Newsday with the best Capuano quip about whether it's a "trap" game: "If it is, we've got problems."
- For the Panthers, the Miami Herald's George Richards says Filip Kuba is out (probably replaced by Tyson Strachan, says Compton) and Jacob Markstrom starts in goal. Marcel Goc is questionable; his absence would be a boon for the Isles and their matchups.
The Islanders have taken both prior meetings with the injury-depleted and generally struggling Panthers: A nailbiter they almost blew in Florida on March 16, and a more comfortable Evgeni Nabokov shutout Chris referenced on March 24.
For fans, we don't really need Admiral Akbar to warn us: The nervousness that accompanies games that matter has set in. For the Isles, they just have to keep putting shots on, boxing opponents out of the dangerous areas, and hope the hockey gods have moved on to smiting someone else. Like, say, the Devils.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks over here.
And, to re-iterate from the morning thread, have one fantastic time on Fan Appreciation Night. All of Islanders Country deserves a good one.