With lines seemingly held together by duct tape and super glue, the Islanders had every excuse to put in an underwhelming effort against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Coming off a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the NHL-best Boston Bruins just 48 hours prior, they learned Monday morning that one of their top playmakers in Mathew Barzal would miss extended time due to a lower-body injury. It depleted a roster that already was without Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Josh Bailey — not to mention the long-term absences of Oliver Wahlstrom and Cal Clutterbuck.
Yet for the second time in four days, the Islanders came back to shock the Penguins — a team they had been chasing in the standings — 4-2 behind three third-period goals.
“It shows the character we have in this room to stick with it,” Bo Horvat, who scored the game-tying goal in the third, said. “It was an unbelievable win.”
And it boiled down to the simplest of mindsets.
“Belief,” Horvat said. “We’ve done it before and we could do it again.”
Such a concept has been hard-pressed to find at times outside of the Islanders locker room this season. First-year head coach Lane Lambert has experienced his fair share of growing pains to get the most out of a roster that had overachieved so often under Barry Trotz.
The last two months in particular had been a struggle. New York lost of 10 of 11 games before acquiring Horvat from he Canucks, which sparked a four-game win streak to get back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Any good momentum, however, was quickly sapped with a three-game skid against non-playoff Canadian teams with a fearsome trio of games — two against Pittsburgh sandwiching a trip to Boston.
Before overturning that 2-1 third-period deficit on Monday, the Islanders erased a 4-2 hole on Friday night at UBS Arena against the very same Penguins.
Four points out of six certainly isn’t anything to hang your head about under such circumstances.
“Say whatever you want about us,” Islanders captain Anders Lee began, “but we’re going to fight to the end on all of this.”
While the Islanders have played four more games than the Penguins, they now hold the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference
Whether or not they can maintain this momentum with a shorthanded roster remains to be seen — and it’s a big ask — but even Lambert could admit that Monday night was their biggest win of the season.
“I think so. It felt like it coming off the ice for sure,” Lambert said. “Toward the end, it was all out commitment…We believe in each other.
“It’s certainly a rewarding win at this stage.”
They’re next test comes in the form of the Winnipeg Jets, the No. 2 team in the Central Division this season, coming off a 4-1 win over the crosstown-rival Rangers on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.