UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) — Clinching a playoff spot brought roars from the home crowd and broad smiles from the New York Islanders, who acknowledged their accomplishment is a satisfying first step.
Jordan Eberle continued his scoring surge with another goal, Anthony Beauvillier added two of his own and the Islanders secured a postseason berth for the first time since 2016 with a 5-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.
Michael Dal Colle and Ryan Pulock also scored for the Islanders, who have 99 points in their first season under coach Barry Trotz and secured a postseason spot in March for the first time since 1990. If the Islanders finish first or second in the Metropolitan Division, it would mark the first time since 1988 they would open a playoff series at home.
“The strength of this team is its backbone,” Trotz said. “It’s good to know we have an invite to the party.”
The Islanders, who have won four of their last five games, trail Washington by three points for the division lead and are four points ahead of third-place Pittsburgh. New York and Washington each have three games remaining, while Pittsburgh has four.
Buffalo’s Victor Olofsson spoiled Robin Lehner’s shutout bid with his first NHL goal on the power play at 13:28 of the third period.
Eberle opened the scoring at 7:41 of the first at Nassau Coliseum, tapping in a rebound after Buffalo’s Carter Hutton initially stopped a shot by Mathew Barzal. Anders Lee also assisted.
The goal was the third in the last two games for Eberle, who has 18 overall this season. He had a three-point game — including the winning goal — against Winnipeg on Thursday, when the Islanders scored two late goals for a 5-4 win over the Jets.
Beauvillier made it 2-0 at 8:20 of the second, finishing off a sequence in which the Islanders kept the puck in the Sabres zone for an extended time. Beauvillier, who was denied on a penalty shot midway through the first, shot the puck from just inside the blue line to elude Hutton.
Dal Colle added his third goal of the season at 19:26 of the second before Pulock scored his ninth goal 30 seconds into the third to make it 4-0.
Beauvillier scored his second of the game and 18th of the season at 6:07 of the third to make it a 5-0 advantage for the Islanders.
Veteran Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck said the victory before their appreciative and very vocal fans - the first time the Islanders clinched at home since 2002 - was important.
“It’s nice to get in there and do it front of these people in this building,” said the 31-year-old Clutterbuck, an Islander since 2013. “They have been there for us all year.”
Lehner, the former Sabre, made 31 saves to improve to 24-12-5 as he heard the crowd repeatedly chant his name.
Lehner has been a revelation for the Islanders after they signed him to a one-year free agent contract last summer during which the Swedish netminder went through well-documented substance abuse and mental illness rehab.
“The strength of our team this year has been working as a group, everyone buying into the system learning how to play close games and play good defense,” Lehner said. “It’s incredibly rewarding to clinch today.”
The Islanders came out flying against the dreadful Sabres, outshooting Buffalo 16-8 in the first period. Hutton managed to stop Beauvillier on a penalty shot at 12:23 after defenseman Brandon Montour tripped the Islanders forward.
Buffalo, which will miss the playoffs for the eighth straight season, is 0-5-1 in its past six games and 1-11-2 in its last 14 overall. The Sabres are also 0-12-2 in their past 14 road games, the longest road skid in the NHL since Toronto went 0-14-2 from Jan. 2 to March 1, 2015.
“This game was about battles. They are a bigger team. That’s why they are in the playoffs,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “We spent way too much time in the defensive zone and we didn’t execute very well. They won way more puck battles than we did.”
With the loss, the Sabres matched the second-longest road skid in franchise history. They went also 0-13-1 from Dec. 4, 2014 to Jan. 30, 2015. Buffalo’s longest road winless streak is 23 contests. The Sabres were 0-15-8, including eight ties, from Oct. 30, 1971 to Feb. 19, 1972.
NOTES: The Islanders are 12-6-2 at Nassau Coliseum this season and were also 12-6-2 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. ... The Islanders are 32-14-3 in their last 48 games and 7-2-2 in their past 11 games overall against the Sabres. ... The Islanders scratched defensemen Thomas Hickey and Luca Sbisa, plus forwards Tanner Fritz and Ross Johnston. ... Buffalo scratched defensemen Zach Bogosian, Matt Tennyson, Jake McCabe, Matt Hunwick and Rasmus Ristolainen, plus forwards Evan Rodrigues and Vladimir Sobotka.
Islanders: Host Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night.
Sabres: Host Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday night.