NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — With a little more than three weeks left in the lockout-shortened regular season, the New York Islanders are in an unexpected position — fighting for their first playoff berth since 2006-07.
The Islanders took another step toward the postseason Monday night as Frans Nielsen set up two early goals and Evgeni Nabokov made 24 saves in a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.
It was the Islanders' fourth win in five games and kept them tied with the New York Rangers in the fight for the eighth and last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with 37 points, just two points behind the seventh-place Devils.
New Jersey and the Isles have 12 games remaining, one less than the Rangers, who beat Winnipeg 4-2 Monday.
"It's fun right now," said Nielsen, who set up goals by Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic in the opening 7:14. "Everybody is excited. We just go out there, play our game and play hard, and we're getting the results right now. We just have to keep it going. We have a big game tomorrow at home. It's exciting. There is a good feeling in here."
The only setback the Islanders have had during the run was a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the winners of 15 straight games.
"There are not many games left and there are so many points that we need still," said John Tavares, who iced the game in the third period with his 22nd goal of the season. "
All the games are against teams you are battling because of the intra-conference play. We're just trying to pick up as many points as we need. We want to get in there, grab a spot and hold onto it, and keep climbing."
The Devils have been slipping since superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk was sidelined with a shoulder injury more than a week ago. They are 0-1-3 without him and the only offense they mustered was a second-period goal by Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Martin Brodeur, who finished with 18 saves, isn't worried about the defending Eastern Conference champions. They were in a similar spot last year in the final weeks of the regular season and turned it on.
"We feel good about ourselves and we just have to find a key moment here to start streaking and play well and beat the teams we need to beat to get to the playoffs," Brodeur said.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer still believes in his team, even though there might be some moves with the trade deadline looming on Wednesday.
"We have to find a way to get in the playoffs," he said. "We are in a playoff spot now. It's in our own hands. I have had a lot of (good) times with that group and a lot of those guys, we went to war with last year and they took us deep. I don't doubt the group."
The Islanders not only won the game, they also won the main event on the fight card.
Matt Martin had a knockout of Devils forward Tom Kostopoulos midway through the first period. The two squared off after Martin checked Stephen Gionta and Martin caught the New Jersey tough guy right on the jaw with a right that sent him to the ice.