With hill to climb to playoffs, Islanders visit Panthers

Mathew Barzal is giving the New York Islanders their money’s worth this season.

Barzal, who signed an eight-year, $73.2 million contract extension in October 2022, leads the Islanders with 73 points in 70 games. On Thursday night, Barzal will try to add to those totals as the Islanders visit the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Fla.

Aside from scoring, Barzal said he has worked hard on his positioning, backchecking and ability to create takeaways.

“I’ve tried to elevate my game and be as complete as I can,” said Barzal, a 26-year-old playing in his seventh full NHL season. “That’s my focus, playing 200 feet, especially down the stretch.”

Barzal is trying to lift the Islanders into the playoffs. However, they will go into Thursday’s game needing to overtake three teams in the battle for the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot.

With 11 games left, the Islanders (30-26-15, 75 points) trail the Washington Capitals (81 points), Detroit Red Wings (79) and New Jersey Devils (76).

The Islanders have qualified for the playoffs in four of the past five seasons. Coach Patrick Roy is 11-11-4 since taking over for the fired Lane Lambert (19-15-11).

For the fourth straight season, the Islanders have a goalie duo of starter Ilya Sorokin (22-19-11, 3.08 goals-against average) and backup Semyon Varlamov (8-7-4, 2.86). Sorokin had a combined 13 shutouts the past two seasons but just two this campaign, and the Islanders have given up 239 goals.

Florida (46-21-5, 97 points) is tied for first in the NHL in fewest goals allowed (177). That’s a credit to starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (32-16-3, 2.41 GAA), who leads the Eastern Conference in wins. But it’s also credit to Florida’s defensive structure and backup goalie Anthony Stolarz (14-5-2, 1.97 GAA).

However, Bobrovsky gave up a 3-2 lead in the final five minutes of Tuesday’s home game against the Boston Bruins. Boston rallied to win, 4-3, moving ahead of Florida for first place in the Atlantic Division.

The Panthers have lost five of their past six games. And against the New York Rangers on Saturday, the Panthers gave up a third-period lead, losing 4-3 in that one, too.

Not that Panthers coach Paul Maurice seems too bothered.

“We want to close out games, but sometimes suffering is good,” Maurice said. “Sometimes it’s good to put that much effort in and get nothing.”

While that is philosophical, it is factual that the Panthers got healthier on Tuesday as center Aleksander Barkov and defenseman Gustav Forsling returned from absences.

Defenseman Aaron Ekblad is the only other key Panthers player still out, and he is listed as day-to-day due to a lower-body injury. He is back to skating, which is a good sign for Florida.

Sam Reinhart leads the Panthers in goals (51) and points (84). He also leads the NHL with 27 power-play goals, and all three of those statistics are career highs for him.

Matthew Tkachuk tops Florida with 56 assists, and Barkov ranks second with 49. Carter Verhaeghe is second on the team with 33 goals.