The Islanders couldn’t afford a fifth straight loss on Saturday night.
Not with such a precarious position in the Eastern Conference standings, with the Penguins holding games in hand and the Sabers and Red Wings both moving up. Not after a disappointing third-period collapse against the Wild on Thursday. Not with the tanking, hapless Canadians their UBS Arena opponent.
A win was the bare minimum, and a loss would be tantamount to a fire alarm for a team that believes it’s good enough to return to the playoffs.
But even after the Canadiens’ 2-1 win, the pressure is very much on the Islanders, who still face four crucial games against four playoff contenders over the next seven days — but they can at least breathe a little easier.
The Saturday morning message from coach Lane Lambert on the back of Thursday’s messy loss was simple: Shoot the puck and hit the net.
“If you miss the net, you can’t score,” Lambert said. “My dad told me when I was 5.”
Eight hours later, the Islanders hit the ice like a team that had gotten the message. They put their usual first period woes aside and jumped all over Montreal from the start. The Islanders took bolts deep. They did a preliminary check. And more importantly, they let it loose with ease, beating goalkeeper Sam Montembeault twice in seven minutes to set the tone for a victory on a night when nothing less would have been enough.
Casey Sizikas opened the scoring by tipping in Noah Dobson’s point shot at 2:25 of the first. That was followed by Anthony Beauvillier pouncing on Scott Mayfield’s rebound to snap his own eight-game scoreless drought less than four minutes later.
It was the first time since Dec. 16 in Arizona that the Islanders took a 2-0 lead in the first period. And unlike that night in Tempe, there wasn’t a second period in which they fell apart.
Admittedly, their dominant start did not continue beyond the first 10 minutes. They didn’t quit Montreal and at times relied on goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who finished with 22 saves, to bail them out. The Canadians made them sweat. Nick Suzuki made it 2-1 at 9:56 of the third, skating by Mayfield before beating Sorokin.
The islanders, however, remained. And with the added bonus of the Penguins losing to the Hurricanes, they jumped Pittsburgh for the last wild card spot in the East.
A win alone won’t do much for the Islanders. They’ve beaten one of the league’s worst teams on home ice, and yet they’ve lost four of their last five. The string of games starting Monday against the Capitals and continuing with the Bruins, Sabers and Hurricanes will be a true test of their mettle. To their credit, every time the season has looked like it’s taking a turn for the worse, the Islanders have held that tide.
However, this was a game they had to have and the Islanders understood it.
Now they have to show if they can do it against a higher level of opposition.