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Streaking Islanders win again, with playoffs in sight

The SportsXchange

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- The New York Islanders are winning home games in March and April that they might have lost in January and February.

As a result, the Islanders have a legitimate shot at snapping a five-season playoff drought and playing postseason games in May at Nassau Coliseum.

Matt Martin's goal with 6:26 to play Saturday night snapped a tie and lifted the streaking Islanders to a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Coliseum.

Michael Grabner, Josh Bailey and Andrew MacDonald also scored for the Islanders (19-16-4), who improved to 6-1-1 in their last eight games and ensured they would remain in the top eight in the Eastern Conference as they pursue the franchise's first playoff berth since the 2006-07 season.

"We're finding a way -- we're finding a way to get the two points," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said.

The Islanders ended the day just as they began it: Tied for seventh place with the Rangers, who also won Saturday night. The rivals, who play at Nassau Coliseum next Saturday night, are two points ahead of Winnipeg, which won Saturday afternoon, and three points ahead of New Jersey, which lost its sixth straight Saturday night.

In addition, with their wins Saturday, the Islanders and Rangers moved within two points of idle Ottawa for sixth place.

"Just got to keep on rolling," Martin said. "We're not looking at the teams below us, we're looking at the teams ahead of us. And we want to catch them."

While Martin is looking at the standings, Capuano said he's avoiding the temptation.

"We can only control what we can control," Capuano said. "I've always preached that to my children, I preach it to our team. We can only control what we can control. We've just got to go about our business."

The Islanders' playoff push has been fueled by better play at home, particularly in the third period. While the Islanders have thrived on the road -- they are 11-5-2 away from Nassau Coliseum -- they opened the season 2-8-1 at home, a stretch in which the Islanders lost six games in which they were tied or leading in the third period.

The Islanders bottomed out at home during a three-game losing streak March 19-22 in which they were outscored 9-0 by the Senators, Canadiens and Penguins.

Since then, the Islanders have won three straight home games. In all three games, the Islanders were leading the opponent by a goal before late empty-netters widened the gap.

"We had to play better at home after the first half of the season and we've really been better as of late," Islanders center John Tavares said. "Just trying to go pick up steam. We talk about gaining confidence and gaining momentum and trying to sustain that, and that's what we're trying to do."

Richard Panik and Matt Carle scored for the Lightning (16-19-2), whose slim postseason hopes grew even dimmer. Tampa Bay began the day in 14th place in the Eastern Conference but is just six points behind Southeast Division co-leaders Washington and Winnipeg.

The Lightning have three games left against Washington and Winnipeg, including Sunday night in Washington.

"It's a real important game," said Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who made 24 saves Saturday. "We've got to go in and play our game and we'll be fine. We can't (hype) it up too much. But it's a very important game, we all know that."

Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov made 19 saves.

Martin's goal capped a taut, back-and-forth game in which the teams were never separated by more than one goal until MacDonald's empty-netter from the Islanders' own faceoff circle with 14 seconds left.

Martin was being pursued by Tyler Johnson, who knocked Martin over just as he shot, and was shielded by Radko Gudas, but Martin still managed to fire the puck past Ben Bishop from the left faceoff circle.

The Islanders took a 1-0 lead 14:45 into the first on a nifty unassisted goal by Grabner, who picked off a pass at the blue line and won a 1-on-2 battle by firing the puck over the shoulder of Bishop.

The Lightning tied it 4:44 into the second on a wrister by Panik, but Bailey put the Islanders ahead less than four minutes later when he took a pass in front of the goalmouth from Kyle Okposo, who was draped by two Lightning players, and poked it past Bishop.

Carle evened the score exactly four minutes into the third with a backhanded shot past Nabokov.

NOTES: Islanders winger Matt Moulson was inactive with the flu, bringing an end to his team-best streak of 284 games played. Moulson's streak was the third longest in franchise history. ... The other inactives for the Islanders were winger Eric Boulton, defenseman Matt Carkner and center Marty Reasoner. The Lightning scratched defenseman Victor Hedman and center Dana Tyrell. ... Winger Jesse Joensuu made his season debut for the Islanders. Joensuu had been on the Islanders' suspended list since the lockout ended because of a groin injury he suffered while playing overseas. ... The game was a homecoming for Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who went to college and played four years of lacrosse at Hofstra, located across the street from Nassau Coliseum. Cooper also played one season of club hockey for Hofstra, which doesn't play the sport at the NCAA level. ... Lightning center Steven Stamkos could become the first player in league history to lead the NHL in goals in consecutive seasons for a team that misses the playoffs. Stamkos, who had 60 goals last year, entered Saturday with 25 goals, two more than the Islanders' John Tavares. The Lightning entered Saturday in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, six points back of the eighth-place Rangers and Islanders.
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