NEW YORK — Now that a three-game stretch against a pair of non-contenders is over, the New York Islanders can shed the one-day-at-a-time cliches and admit the obvious: They knew they needed to collect six points in the three games.
The Islanders achieved the objective Thursday in what has become a routinely white-knuckle fashion when center Anders Lee scored the game-winning goal early in the third period of a 4-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Barclays Center.
“Can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Lee said. “But at this point of the season, these are games that we need to win.”
Three straight come-from-behind, one-goal wins over Metropolitan Division also-rans — the Islanders beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 in overtime Saturday and 2-1 in a shootout Tuesday — has helped New York (42-25-9) cement its grip on the top wild card in the Eastern Conference and gain ground in the race for a top-three finish in the Metropolitan.
“Looking back, I think it’s good that we did get those points, because standings-wise, I guess you should win those games,” said defenseman Thomas Hickey, who scored the Islanders’ second goal in the first period. “But it’s game by game right now. Really is. You can’t underestimate anyone or disrespect anyone.”
The Islanders lead the wild card race by six points over the ninth-place Detroit Red Wings and four points over the second wild card, the Philadelphia Flyers. They are also two points behind the third-place New York Rangers in the Metropolitan following the Rangers’ 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes on Thursday.
“It was an important few games for us here, I’m not going to lie to you,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “And it’s the difference if you get (to the playoffs) or not.”
The Islanders appeared on their way to a rare breather after they scored three unanswered goals to end the first period — including tallies by Hickey and John Tavares in a 41-second span — with a 3-1 lead.
But Brandon Saad scored a power play goal with 4:12 left in the second and Boone Jenner tied the game 37 seconds into the third for the Blue Jackets. It was the second blown two-goal lead in three games for the Islanders, who squandered an early 2-0 lead against Carolina on Saturday.
“The last three games were all we could handle,” Hickey said. “Carolina plays hard and Columbus came back on us today.”
The Islanders avoided overtime thanks to some choppy ice. Johnny Boychuk’s slap shot bounced off the end wall and into the goalmouth, where the puck bounced off Lee’s skate and under the legs of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“Tight playoff race, third period goal, pretty lucky bounce,” Lee said. “We’ll take it and move on.”
The Islanders’ magic number for clinching a second straight playoff berth is any combination of five points gained by them or lost by the Red Wings. New York will find out how it fares against the top of the Eastern Conference over its next four games when it hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins (Saturday) and Tampa Bay Lightning (Monday) before visiting the Washington Capitals (Tuesday) and New York Rangers (April 7).
“We’re still building, we’ve still got a lot more (to do),” Tavares said. “Saturday will be a great test.”
Thomas Greiss made 21 saves for the Islanders, including 11 in the third period and two during a power play that ended with 46 seconds remaining.
Brandon Dubinsky scored in the first period for the Blue Jackets (30-39-8), who have lost four straight (0-4-0) and eight of 10 (2-8-0). With 68 points, Columbus is one point ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks (pending the Canucks’ game Thursday night against the San Jose Sharks) in the “race” to avoid finishing last in the NHL.
“I thought we settled the game down in the second period,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. “We played better as the game went on. But we lost the hockey game.”
Bobrovsky recorded 23 saves for the Blue Jackets.
NOTES: The Islanders scratched C Mikhail Grabovski (concussion), G Jaroslav Halak (lower body) and D Marek Zidlicky (upper body) as well as RW Steve Bernier, LW Eric Boulton and D Ryan Pulock. … Islanders D Travis Hamonic did not return after suffering a lower body injury in the first period. Entering Thursday, Hamonic led the Islanders’ skaters in average ice time per game (24:07). … The Blue Jackets scratched RW David Clarkson (lower body), G Curtis McElhinney (knee surgery), D Fedor Tyutin (undisclosed) as well as LW Rene Bourque and D Justin Falk, the latter of whom was recalled from Lake Erie of the American Hockey League on Thursday. In addition, RW Jared Boll served the final game of a four-game suspension for a late hit against Philadelphia RW Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on March 22. … Blue Jackets LW Sonny Milano, a native of Massapequa on Long Island, played 13:26 in his NHL debut. The 19-year-old was recalled from AHL Lake Erie on Wednesday.