The New York Islanders moved into playoff contention with a hot stretch in late December and January, only to suffer an untimely slump and a critical injury that contributed greatly to them missing the playoffs.
The Islanders can at least complete a surge to the finish Sunday when they visit the Buffalo Sabres in a season-ending matchup of last-place teams.
New York (33-37-11) won 10 of 13 from Dec. 29-Jan. 21 and looked poised to make a run to the playoffs for the second straight season. It didn’t work out that way, as the Islanders then went 1-6-1 just before the Olympic break.
It got much worse during the Sochi Games, as captain John Tavares was lost for the season with a knee injury he suffered playing for Team Canada.
Despite being out of the postseason picture and missing Tavares, who is still second on the team in points, New York has gone 7-2-2 in its last 11 and can close the season with a third straight victory. The Islanders defeated New Jersey 3-2 in a shootout Friday as they continued to give time to younger players.
"It’s important," rookie defenseman Scott Mayfield said. "It’s a great experience and we’re all getting an opportunity, myself included, and it’s a lot of fun and you kind of want to learn as much as you can going into summer and know what you have to do this summer to get better and make a push for it next year."
New York has allowed two goals over the last two games after giving up four in each of the previous three, all losses. Both wins have come on the road, and the club will be looking to extend a remarkable 16-5-2 surge away from home Sunday.
The Islanders dealt the Sabres (21-51-9) a 4-1 loss in their last matchup March 15 that evened the season series at 1-all. The defeat was part of a seven-game skid for Buffalo, which has gone 2-16-1 in its last 19 and dropped its past six.
The Sabres, finishing a turmoil-filled season with by far the worst record in the league, have scored 154 goals – a total that’s easily the lowest in the NHL.
Cody Hodgson scored for Buffalo in a 4-1 loss to Boston on Saturday. The Sabres have managed 27 goals in the last 19 contests.
Goaltender Matt Hackett suffered a serious injury to his right leg, though it’s not broken, after Bruins defenseman Torey Krug fell on him with 11:35 left. The Sabres also lost forwards Chris Stewart (ankle) and Brian Flynn (lower body) along with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff (concussion).
"I’ve never seen anything like that," forward Drew Stafford told the team’s official website. "You know to go through that on the bench that’s quite a bit of a challenge; just add it to the list this year. I mean we don’t want to use any excuses at all for what’s going on, but I don’t know if that’s our ninth goalie or whatever it is, and we are playing basically with two lines for the last half the period."
Hodgson has four goals and four assists in his last eight games.