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Playoff excitment building for Islanders

The SportsXchange

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders officially began preparing for their move to Brooklyn on Tuesday, when the team announced it would play a preseason game against the Devils at Barclays Center on Sept. 21.

But the Islanders showed hours later that they aren't done creating memories at the aging Nassau Coliseum.

Michael Grabner's goal late in the second period proved to be the game-winner as the Islanders continued their stellar play in pursuit of the franchise's first playoff berth in six seasons with a 4-1 victory Tuesday over the Philadelphia Flyers at an electric Coliseum.

Matt Moulson, John Tavares and Casey Cizikas also scored for the Islanders, who put the game away with a Flyers' "own goal" credited to Tavares and Cizikas' empty netter in the final 90 seconds.

As the clocked moved to 0:00 and the Islanders improved to 20-16-4 -- including 7-1-1 in their last nine games -- chants of "We want playoffs!" from the crowd of 13,888 rained down from the rafters of the Coliseum, the second-oldest building in the NHL and the only place the Islanders ever called home before announcing last fall that they would move to Brooklyn when their Coliseum lease expires at the end of the 2014-15 season.

"People may not realize it, but having an old building, it can get pretty loud, it can be a pretty special atmosphere," Tavares said.

With the win, the Islanders (44 points) moved into a tie for sixth place with the Senators. The Islanders are four points ahead of ninth-place New Jersey.

Islanders coach Jack Capuano said after Saturday night's 4-2 win over the Lightning that he wasn't scoreboard watching. The Islanders, though, encouraged it Tuesday: During a stoppage in play late in the second period, the scoreboard not only flashed other Eastern Conference scores but also each team's points and place in the playoff race.

The Islanders have finished in last place in the Atlantic Division each of the last five seasons, a stretch in which they have missed the playoffs by an average of 18 points per season. The franchise hasn't won a playoff series since 1993.

"We know it's been a long time since the team has been in the playoffs, or competing for them," Tavares said. "And we want to get there."

The Islanders have played like it over the two-plus weeks, a stretch in which they've begun to play well at home while displaying the ability to finish teams in the third period.

New York opened the season 5-12-1 at home but has won its last four at the Coliseum. In all four games, the Islanders led by a goal in the third period before scoring empty netters in the final minutes.

"We've been starting a lot better lately than we did earlier in the year," Tavares said. "Obviously, we're playing much more consistently throughout games, playing much better at home. It's just a great feeling to be a part of this team right now."

Said Capuano: "We haven't been in this position before. I think they're excited to be here. They know the way they have to play."

The Islanders' current hot streak was preceded by a three-game home losing skid from March 19-22 in which the Islanders were outscored 9-0 in the third period.

"I don't want to start thinking too much about this, you know?" said Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who had 27 saves Tuesday and has saved more than 94 percent of the shots he's faced in his last eight starts. "I just want to keep playing hockey. That's all it is."

The Islanders' win damaged the Flyers' playoff hopes while snapping a three-year home losing streak against Philadelphia.

The Flyers (17-19-3), who lost their second straight following a four-game winning streak, haven't missed the playoffs since 2006-07 -- the last year the Islanders reached the postseason -- but remained five points behind the eighth-place Rangers and Jets with the loss.

"We know this was a key game for us, but we'll have a chance to play (the Islanders) again at the end of the season," Flyers winger Simon Gagne said.

The Flyers host the Islanders April 25 in the penultimate game of the season for both teams.

"We have other teams that are ahead of us the last nine games of the season, so we have to stay positive," Gagne said. "But this one hurt tonight."

The Islanders' win was their first at Nassau Coliseum over the Flyers since Apr. 1, 2010, a seven-game stretch in which the Islanders were 0-6-1.

Jakub Voracek scored in the first period for the Flyers while Steve Mason had 28 saves.

A playoff atmosphere at the Coliseum was enhanced by a spirited, bipartisan crowd that turned out on the warmest night of the year to cheer on teams whose playoff pursuits are rooted in different forms of desperation.

Dueling chants of "Let's go Islanders!" and "Let's go Flyers!" filled the arena. Fans of both teams roared their approval six minutes into the second, when Matt Martin and Brayden Schenn fought at center ice and drew five-minute penalties.

During a line shift late in the third, the Flyers' Matt Read shoved the Cizikas but drew no whistle.

The Flyers took a 1-0 lead 6:28 into the first when Voracek took a clearing pass from Claude Giroux and fired a shot past Nabokov. The play had to be reviewed because Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald crashed into Nabokov -- and knocked the goal clear into the boards -- just after the puck slid past him.

The Islanders tied it a little more than nine minutes later after a nifty coast-to-coast rush. As he was leveled into the boards, Tavares cleared the puck to Brad Boyes, who controlled the puck as Kent Huskins, skating backward, tried poking it free. Moulson, skating alongside Boyes, broke free of Bruno Gervais just long enough to get open for the crossing pass, which he poked past Mason.

Grabner put the Islanders ahead with 2:18 left in the second when he took a pass from Colin McDonald and fired the shot past Mason, who was being shielded by one of his own defensemen.

NOTES: The Islanders scratched centers Marty Reasoner and Anders Lee, winger Eric Boulton and defenseman Radek Martinek, while the Flyers scratched centers Zac Rinaldo and Maxime Talbot, defenseman Kurtis Foster and winger Tye McGinn. ... The nearest playoff "near-miss" for the Islanders over the last five years happened in 2009-10, when they finished nine points back of eighth place. They missed the playoffs by 15 points in 2007-08, 32 points in 2008-09, 20 points in 2010-11 and 13 points in 2011-12. ... The Islanders-Devils exhibition game will be the first hockey game at Barclays. ... Flyers coach Peter Laviolette is trying to preserve his own playoff streak. The last time a Laviolette-coached team missed the playoffs was in 2007-08, when the Hurricanes finished in ninth place in the East, two points out of eighth. ... Entering Tuesday, the Flyers' only regulation losses to the Islanders in the last five seasons occurred Feb. 12, 2008 (4-3 at Nassau Coliseum), Apr. 1, 2010 (6-4 at Nassau Coliseum) and Jan. 19, 2012 (4-1 at Wells Fargo).
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