The Islanders know they need to be in playoff mode.
After slipping below the postseason cutoff line two days ago, the Islanders turned it around and won their second in a row Sunday to claw their way back into playoff position with a 4-1 victory over the Sharks at the Coliseum.
The Islanders have little room to breathe in the standings after their recent abysmal road trip, when they went 0-4 and found themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture for the first time since mid-October.
But with visits from the league-worst Red Wings on Friday followed by the streaky Sharks, the Islanders have played like their postseason hopes depended on it.
That was highlighted in a selfless play at the end of Sunday’s win from Islanders captain Anders Lee, who recorded his first two-goal performance since January of last year and added an assist for a three-point night.
With an opportunity to register the first hat trick of his NHL career on his stick as he skated toward an empty Sharks net, Lee elected to pass to a wide-open Josh Bailey for the fourth and final goal of the evening.
“He hasn’t had a hat trick ever in his life in the NHL,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “And he had the opportunity to do that and it wasn’t even a thought in his head. His thought was to get it over to a teammate and made sure that we got the win and the empty net.
“It tells you a lot about Anders. It tells you what kind of leader he is and tells you a lot about the person that he is.”
The Sharks, losers of four in a row, are in the midst of a four-game East Coast trip, where they’ve already picked up losses to the Rangers and Devils. It was the Islanders’ last game before Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline.
Lee opened the scoring after a two-on-one rush with Mat Barzal, who displayed his patience with the puck before feeding the Islanders captain at 6:49 of the first. But the Sharks bit back to knot the game less than four minutes later when Dylan Gambrell deflected a Radim Simek shot past Semyon Varlamov, who seemed to have no idea the puck went in.
The Islanders were held to six shots on goal in the middle period, but managed to come away with a two-goal lead. Just over a minute into the second, the first line comprised of Lee, Barzal and Jordan Eberle got things rolling yet again. Lee sniped Sharks goaltender Martin Jones over the right shoulder from the left circle to make it 2-1. It was Lee’s sixth point in the last eight games.
“We have to be [in playoff mode],” Lee said. “The points are so tough to come by. Our division is crazy, it’s tight the whole way down. It’s going to be the rest of the way here. Every night is huge.”
Ryan Pulock nearly handed Lee his third goal midway through the second, when he slid the puck through San Jose’s crease before the Isles captain could get a stick on it. Kieffer Bellows, who has been in and out of the Islanders’ lineup since his call-up at the beginning of the month, rung the post with roughly four minutes remaining in the second.
At 17:38 of the second, Devon Toews put the Islanders up 3-1 with a top-shelf shot from the slot.
The Islanders remained cool and collected in the third, managing to play it safe in the final 20 minutes. Sharks winger Timo Meier was well defended on a partial breakaway, the Sharks’ final dangerous opportunity, at 14:13 before Varlamov knocked the puck away to maintain the two-goal lead.
Bailey capped the scoring at 17:41 of the third with the empty-netter after Lee opted for the better shot instead of his own individual success.
“If I never get one, maybe I’ll regret it,” Lee said with a smile. “But right now it doesn’t matter at all. We just needed a big win tonight following up the other night here.
“We got to start putting as many points in the bank as we can.”