NEW YORK — The NHL playoffs don’t officially begin until April 11. But for all intents and purposes, the postseason starts Tuesday night for the New York Islanders and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Two of the seven Metropolitan Division teams wrapped up in a tightly-packed race for the final two Metro playoff spots and the two Eastern Conference wild-card berths will face off at Barclays Center.
The Blue Jackets snapped a five-game losing streak Saturday night when they beat the visiting New Jersey Devils 6-1. The host Islanders squandered a two-goal lead Sunday and fell to the Calgary Flames 3-2.
The loss by the Islanders (27-24-6) cost them a chance to break a tie with the Blue Jackets (28-23-4) and move into a wild-card spot. Instead, New York and Columbus enter Tuesday with 60 points apiece, one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes, who occupy the second wild card, and two points behind the wild card-leading Devils.
But the Islanders and Blue Jackets are also just one point ahead of the last-place New York Rangers and within striking distance of the second- and third-place teams in the Metro — the Pittsburgh Penguins (66 points) and Philadelphia Flyers (65 points).
All seven teams are in action Tuesday night, meaning the Islanders and Blue Jackets could be anywhere from all alone in the second wild-card spot to alone in last place by the end of the evening.
Such unpredictability is likely a sign of things to come for the next seven weeks, when the thinnest of margins could determine who advances to the playoffs and who heads home.
“With the way it is right now, as far as the standings, everything has to be better,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said after practice Monday. “Our goaltending needs to be better. All facets of the game — defense, offense, special teams — need to continue to try to be consistent and better.”
The clash Tuesday night caps five straight games against Metro foes for the Blue Jackets, who opened the stretch with a 3-2 loss to the Islanders at Barclays Center on Feb. 3, and begins a three-game divisional swing for the Islanders, who host the Rangers on Thursday before visiting the Hurricanes on Friday.
“I think this week is do or die for us,” Islanders center Casey Cizikas told Newsday after practice Monday afternoon. “We’d either be in a really good position, or we can be in a tough position where we’re kind of looking from the other side in. We want to make sure that we’re putting pressure on other teams to keep up with us and we’re not chasing them. So this week is massive.”
The Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak and the Blue Jackets’ Sergei Bobrovsky are expected to oppose one another in a battle of No. 1 goalies. Halak took the loss Sunday when he had 39 saves against the Flames. Bobrovsky posted the win Saturday, making 34 saves against the Devils.
Halak is 13-5-3 in 22 regular-season appearances against the Blue Jackets. Bobrovsky is 14-5-0 in 20 games against the Islanders.