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.
To his credit, Martin immediately motioned to the Devils bench for help for the dazed player.
"I think he will be all right," DeBoer said of Kostopoulos, who did not return to the game.
The Islanders dominated the first period in taking a two-goal lead, while the Devils controlled the second in cutting the deficit in half on a goal by Ponikarovsky.
Nielsen had the primary assist in getting the Islanders off to a quick start against Brodeur. He made a nifty pass on a 2-on-1 break to set up Bailey's second goal in four games.
Hamonic's first goal in 19 games was a weak wrist shot from the point that Brodeur said he never saw until it was too late.
"You always want to have the lead, especially against these guys," Nielsen said. "They are really good defensive team and if you get behind, it's tough to create chances. Every time you get a lead against them, they feel a little out of their comfort zone. It was huge."
New Jersey, which didn't have a shot in the opening 7:25 and had only four in the first period, found its legs in the second.
Ponikarovsky snapped an 18-game goal drought by re-directing Patrik Elias' centering pass past Nabokov. Elias set up the goal by skating around Isles defenseman Mark Streit at the blue line to set up an odd-man rush.
That goal should have tied the game, but Devils' leading goal scorer David Clarkson banged a rebound off the post with the net wide open minutes earlier.
"We had a bad second period," Nielsen said. "Way too many turnovers, and Nabby saved us. But I liked the way we came out in the third."
Tavares, who is second to Steven Stamkos in the NHL's goal-scoring race, gave the Islanders breathing room 9:13 into the third period with his ninth power-play goal. It was a shot into an open net after a cross-ice pass by Lubomir Visnovsky found its way through a crowd to him.
NOTES: Devils LW Dainius Zubrus played for the first time since tearing a ligament in his left wrist in game against the Rangers on Feb. 5. He had surgery and missed 26 games. ... This was the fourth time this season Nielsen had two assists in a game. ... Nabokov has started 16 of the past 17 games for the Islanders, and 31 of 36 this season. ... New York has been either tied or ahead in the third period in 30 of 36 games this season. ... DeBoer said C Travis Zajac missed portions of the game because of the flu. ...The Islanders won the season series 3-2, although the Devils (2-2-1) got five points.