To label the 2021 NHL season as a grind is quite an understatement as the 56-game slate packed within four months provides an onslaught of relentless competition. It makes what the Islanders are currently doing all the more impressive.
They’ve won 15 of their last 19 games — which have come in 37 days — and are currently on a three-game winning streak following a 1-0 victory over the Washington Capitals to move them into a tie once again for first place in the Eastern Division with just over a month to go in the regular season.
Tuesday night’s game at Nassau Coliseum was as close to a playoff feel as one can find in the regular season despite the Islanders dominating large stretches of the game while outshooting Washington 39-29.
That kind of jump was just what head coach Barry Trotz’s men ordered, even if the winner didn’t come until the third period when Brock Nelson cleaned up a rebound off a Ryan Pulock shot past Vitek Vanecek, as they fell into a lull of having to play from behind in four-straight games last week.
At the time, Trotz blamed the early-game struggles on a mixture of individual mistakes and fatigue, but the mentality has remained constant — allowing the Islanders to work out of the temporary funk.
“I think we’ve been in close games all year, it seems like.,” Trotz said. “We’ve been in playoff mode from the drop of the puck this season. Our guys are enjoying it. We’re trying to manage it as a group. I think what they’ve learned is to manage their compete. Embrace the grind, the uncertainty of how to do things… That’s the fun part.”
Grind? Nineteen games in 37 days? Fun?
“There’s a lot of stuff we can’t do with the restrictions and the pandemic, so enjoy the moments that we are together competing against good teams,” Trotz continued. “Our whole division is such a grind and such a balanced division that you have to compete every night and these guys have done such a really good job.”
The re-worked Eastern Division for the 2021 season due to COVID-19 protocols has been considered by many to be the clear-cut toughest grouping of the four divisions put together by the NHL. It guarantees that the Islanders’ schedule won’t get much easier for the remaining 17 regular-season games with rivalry tilts against the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers at Nassau Coliseum followed by a two-game set in Boston against the dangerous Bruins.
“Every game is different. I think you have a gameplan and a script in your head and it doesn’t go to plan often,” Nelson said. “Every game is going to be tough the rest of the way in. Our division is tight, all the points matter. You need to find different ways to win.”