It’s taken the New York Islanders almost seven years to win five straight games. Judging by the improvements they’ve made, win streaks should be coming around much more frequently this season.
New York faces a difficult challenge Saturday night when it visits a Tampa Bay Lightning team aiming to rebound from its first back-to-back losses this season.
Win streaks have been few and far between for the Islanders, who have made the playoffs just once in seven seasons. This year’s team, however, appears to be serious about playing beyond 82 games, with its 11-5-0 record the franchise’s best after 16 games since the 2001-02 squad opened 11-3-1 with one tie.
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After ranking 28th last season with a 3.18 goals-against average, the Islanders have lowered that to 2.81 this year behind new goalies Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson. Halak has allowed five goals during a personal four-game win streak while Johnson stopped 28 of 29 shots in his lone appearance this month.
Although he was unable to record his third straight shutout, Halak was strong again with 35 saves in a 4-3 shootout victory at Florida on Friday. The Islanders blew a two-goal lead in the third period before Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo converted in the tiebreaker to lift New York to its fifth consecutive win, its longest run since a six-game streak Feb. 12-21, 2008.
”We just want to keep it going,” forward Josh Bailey said. ”It’s a long year, and when you get on a bit of a roll, you want to ride the wave as long as you can.”
An improved penalty kill has also provided a boost of late for the Islanders, who were 29th in the league last season when short-handed. They’ve killed 17 of 18 opposing power plays over the past four games after allowing six goals on 14 chances in the previous five.
Keeping the Lightning (11-4-2) in check had been a problem for most teams this season, but they’ve been cooled off in two straight losses. Tampa Bay averaged 3.8 goals in its first 15 games before a 3-2 shootout loss at Chicago and Thursday’s 2-1 defeat to San Jose.
Steven Stamkos scored his team-best 11th goal on one of 16 third-period shots against the Sharks, but it wasn’t enough to give Tampa Bay a fifth consecutive home win.
”Their goalie played well,” said Ben Bishop said, who stopped 37 shots. ”If he doesn’t play that well maybe we win that game.”
Thursday’s loss was Bishop’s first in regulation in eight home starts this season, and he’s yet to allow more than three goals in any of his 14 appearances.
With three games in the next four nights, including a rematch on Long Island on Tuesday, coach Jon Cooper could rest Bishop and start Evgeni Nabokov against his former team. Nabokov spent the previous three seasons with the Islanders.
"We’ve got one of the hottest teams, if not the hottest team in the league coming in (Saturday) night," Cooper said. "This is good for us. At least it shows us where we’re at, what we have to work on."
Stamkos, who has three goals and two assists during a four-game point streak, has 10 goals and 19 points in his last 15 contests against New York.
All three meetings between these teams last season went to a shootout, with Tampa Bay winning twice. The Islanders, though, are 4-0-2 in their past six games in the series.
Bishop was in net for every matchup in 2013-14 and posted a 1.55 GAA.