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NEWARK, N.J. -- John Tavares clinched the game with his power-play goal in the third period, but the Islanders took control of their 3-1 victory over the Devils in the early minutes of the first period.
Josh Bailey scored 52 seconds into the game and Travis Hamonic made it 2-0 at the 7:14 mark to spark the Islanders before a crowd of 17,625 on Monday night at the Prudential Center.
"That ended up being the game," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "We're not a team that scores many goals. We have trouble digging out of a hole that big. We're in crunch time and we have to find a way to separate ourselves and solidify a (playoff) spot. We sure weren't taking them lightly. I don't have an answer why (the Devils started slowly)."
The game had barely started when Bailey scored his sixth goal of the season, finishing a 2-on-1 break with a backhand that beat Martin Brodeur to the glove side.
Kyle Okposo's pass from behind his own net hit Frans Nielsen for the break. Nielsen took the puck in before sliding it left for Bailey, who deked Brodeur before knocking home his backhand shot from close range.
"Every game you want to score first, but I thought we did a good job after that," Bailey said. "It was something we talked about. I wound up catching Brodeur sliding one way and was able to put it to the other side. We're obviously motivated to make a run at the playoffs, but you can't get too far ahead of yourself. You have to take it one game at a time. We just have to keep finding ways to win."
The Islanders (17-16-3) now have 37 points in the Eastern Conference standings, two points behind the seventh-place Devils (15-12-9). The Rangers also have 37 points, but have a game in hand on the Islanders.
New York doubled its lead to 2-0 at the 7:14 mark of the first when Travis Hamonic lifted a shot from just inside the blue line that found the back of the net to Brodeur's left. Nielsen was credited with the assist.
With the Islanders on the power play midway through the third period, Lubomir Visnovsky sent the puck in front of the net from the left wing. Brodeur touched it before it carried to Tavares, who connected with a shot from the edge of the right circle to make it a two-goal lead for New York.
Tavares, with 22 goals, ranks second in the NHL in goals, trailing only the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos, who has 25.
"They came at us pretty hard in the second period and we did a decent job of holding our own and not giving up too many goals or chances, and then capitalizing in the third period and lock them down," Tavares said. "It was huge for us and it was a big boost. It seems we're playing much better at the start of the games. We were really slow at the beginning of the year and I really think it's making us successful."
The Devils had cut a 2-0 Islanders lead to 2-1 on Alexei Ponikarovsky's goal at 8:01 of the second period, but Tavares' goal restored New York's comfortable margin.
"We feel we're good enough to make a run at the playoffs," said Brodeur, when asked if the team needed to make a trade. "At the end of the day, it's up to Lou (Lamoriello) and his staff to make the decision. Last year, we were in a similar situation with 12 games to go. We had to play well and we won our last six games. We have to find a way to start streaking and be the team we want to be entering the playoffs."
The Devils started the second period in an attack mode, and their aggression paid off at the 8:01 mark when Ponikarovsky netted his fourth goal of the season, converting a pinpoint pass to the far post from Patrik Elias. Travis Zajac took control of the puck and passed it to Elias, who sent it to Ponikarovsky for the goal that cut it to 2-1.
Minutes earlier, Ponikarovsky's point-blank shot had Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov beat, but it banged off the crossbar and over the net.
"Our second period was great, that's how we have to play," DeBoer said. "Our second period was pretty good. We have to be a team that plays relentless for 60 minutes. You're not going to win at this time of year if you don't play for 60 minutes. We're in a playoff spot now, it's in our own hands.''
The Devils wound up outshooting the Islanders 25-21. Nabokov made 24 saves en route to the win. Brodeur stopped 18 shots.
In the middle of the first period, Matt Martin of the Islanders landed a knockdown punch on Tom Kostopoulos. The Devils right wing took exception to an open-ice hit Martin landed on Stephen Gionta. The two squared off near center ice, and Martin hit Kostopoulos directly on the chin. The punch was so hard that Martin immediately waved for help. Kostopoulos was able to skate off with an escort from his teammates.
"I don't think anyone likes to see anyone get hurt, at the same time I think there was nothing but respect for what Tom did," DeBoer said. "He was trying to get our team going. There is nothing but respect for him from our team and our staff."
NOTES: After missing nearly two months and 26 games because of ligament damage to his left wrist, New Jersey left winger Dainius Zubrus was back Monday. Zubrus hadn't played for the Devils since skating against the Rangers on Feb. 5. "I think he was okay," DeBoer said. "I think it was a lot to ask to play him for 14 minutes after being out so long, but we're going to have to find a way to get him going." ... The Devils opened a roster spot for Zubrus by assigning forward Tim Sestito to the Albany Devils of the AHL on Saturday. Zubrus had contributed one goal and four points in his nine games before the injury. DeBoer said that Devils center Travis Zajac was battling the flu and "he was throwing up," during the game. ... Tavares notched his fourth career hat trick for the Islanders in a 5-1 victory over the Devils on Feb. 16. ... Before the game, the Islanders signed forward Anders Lee, 22, a junior at Notre Dame, to an entry-level contract and reassigned Ryan Strome to its AHL Bridgeport affiliate. The Islanders had selected Lee in the sixth round (152nd overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft. He led Notre Dame in scoring in each of his first three seasons. Lee's college season ended with a 5-1 loss to St. Cloud in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday. A day later, he was signed by the Islanders. "He's going to play," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. ... The Islanders placed Joe Finley on injured reserve. ... Adam Larsson, Krystofer Barch and Anton Volchenkov were scratches for the Devils. Lee, Matt Carkner and Eric Boulton were scratched for the Islanders.