Western road trips had been an enigmatic swing for the Islanders this season having lost five of the first seven road games they played in the region this season.
So when they lost their sixth in eight tries on Tuesday night in Los Angeles against the Kings, there could have been an understandable sink in morale.
But these are not the same Islanders from earlier this season — and a team looking to cement its spot in the playoffs did precisely what it needed to do.
New York defeated the Ducks 6-3 on Wednesday night in Anaheim before placing a tidy bow on the three-game trip with a 4-1 triumph over the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night.
“It’s successful and move on,” head coach Lane Lambert said. “We’ve talked about the LA game, there was a little stretch in there that cost us [coinciding penalties on Alex Romanov and Matt Martin leading to three goals in 6:08 during the second period of a 5-2 loss].
“That’s over and done. The guys did a really good job in responding and getting these two victories when we had to.”
This is just the latest example of a team led by a first-year coach that is re-learning to respond to adversity.
Since a stretch in which they lost 11 of 13 games from Jan. 1-25, the Islanders are 13-5-3 in their last 21 games while providing the most resemblance to the organized, defensively-sound Barry Trotz-led teams of the previous four seasons.
New York has allowed an average of 2.5 goals per game during that stretch that has featured three shutouts and 11 games in which it has allowed two goals or fewer.
“We have to play a certain way and our structure is our safety blanket, so to speak,” Lambert said. “We like to be hard to play against if we can be. The guys are doing a really good job of it.”
Top-tier goaltending from Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov helps, but the Islanders have intensified their play in the neutral zone to dictate the pace of play and slow things down. No longer are opponents finding an abundance of easy entries into New York’s zone and subsequently setting up shop there.
The Ducks did not record more than eight shots in a period during the Islanders’ 6-3 win on Wednesday. The Sharks recorded just eight shots in a second period in which the Islanders opened up a 3-1 lead after yielding the opener.
“That’s been pretty key for us the last month, month and a half, two months, and we’ve been winning hockey games,” veteran forward Zach Parise said. “We’ve been really good in the neutral one, defensively we’ve been pretty sound, and that’s turning into offense for us. I thought for the most part on this trip, we were really good without the puck.”
With just 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Islanders’ 2-1 west-coast trip has them back in the top Eastern Conference Wild Card spot at 80 points. That’s two points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and three ahead of the Florida Panthers — both of whom have played two fewer games than the Islanders as of Sunday.
If they continue their current level of play, they’ll find themselves in the postseason. All that is needed is the continuation of this current blueprint.
“These last 11 games we have, that’s just our identity,” Parise said. “That’s who we are, and we know that. When we do that well, we can be pretty stingy.”