UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The New Jersey Devils have company in the improbable comeback department.
Don’t look now. Here come the New York Islanders, too.
The odds are stacked against them getting into the Eastern Conference playoff race, but under interim coach Jack Capuano, the Islanders are trying to salvage a season that showed little hope of providing anything positive not long ago.
Matt Moulson scored three times for his second straight multigoal game, Al Montoya stopped 20 shots, and the Islanders cruised to a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers on Monday.
New York still leads only Ottawa in the East, but the young club has won six of seven and is 19-20-4 since Capuano took over for fired coach Scott Gordon on Nov. 15. The Islanders are 18-12-2 in their past 32 games, a stretch that has brought them within one point of surging New Jersey and 11 behind eighth-place Carolina with 22 games to go.
“Our focus is get as many wins as we can,” Moulson said. “We’re kind of under the radar. Everybody talks about the Devils and how well they’re playing right now. Maybe we’ll catch a couple of teams off-guard.”
Montoya hasn’t been on Long Island long, but he has bought into the good feeling the Islanders are creating. He has been quite a find for the Islanders, who have used six goalies because of injuries. On Saturday, he stopped 35 shots in New York’s 3-0 win over Los Angeles and became the first Islander to post a shutout in his first start with the club.
He is making a case to come back next season with the Islanders (23-30-7), who acquired him out of desperation.
“People want to knock us down every day, from what I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” he said. “You want to play that underdog role. You go out there and play hard and show the rest of the league what you can do.”
Moulson got the Islanders going 7:40 in and added his 25th goal with 5:02 left in the first period, when New York outshot Florida 16-3. Radek Martinek added a power-play goal in the second, and Josh Bailey scored to turn it into a rout.
Moulson completed his second career hat trick and took the team lead in goals by scoring an empty-netter with 2:37 left.
Montoya lost a bid for his third shutout in six career NHL starts when Mike Santorelli scored a power-play goal with 9:26 remaining. Montoya, acquired from Phoenix on Feb. 9, has yielded three goals in four wins as a starter.
The Islanders have scored at least three goals in nine straight games, the first time they have done that since a 10-game run from Feb. 27-March 17, 1994. They held a 37-21 shots advantage. The latest spurt has helped them continue their second-half turnaround. However, wins over the Panthers have been uncommon.
Florida had won three straight over the Islanders, six of seven (6-0-1) and 12 of 15 (12-2-1) before being dominated in front of a kid-filled, energetic crowd on Presidents Day.
“There are no excuses,” Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said. “They were the more desperate team. It’s frustrating, and there were 20 guys who were bad.”
Unlike Saturday when Moulson scored twice against Los Angeles goalie and brother-in-law Jonathan Quick, the left winger has no family connection to the Panthers’ Tomas Vokoun.
Moulson took a pass from behind the net from John Tavares to Vokoun’s left and slammed a shot in to make it 1-0. The goal came just over a minute after defenceman Jack Hillen rang a shot off the post.
That was the Panthers’ last break.
Moulson made it 2-0 when he ripped in a one-timer from the left circle while down on one knee.
DeBoer used his timeout, but it hardly helped.
“It’s tough,” Vokoun said. “They’re playing well and they’re playing loose.”
The Islanders controlled play and were helped by a pair of power plays in the first, including a five-minute major against Panthers leading scorer Stephen Weiss, who was ejected for elbowing Martinek.
New York didn’t take advantage until 37 seconds into the middle period when Martinek scored to snap the Panthers’ streak of 31 penalty kills.
Bailey made it 4-0 at 6:41 for the Islanders, who held a 22-3 edge in shots. Florida went nearly a full period without a shot, spanning the first two frames.
“We didn’t start as well as we wanted, and I don’t know why,” Santorelli said.
Notes: Florida entered with an NHL-low 8.4 penalty minutes per game before having 26 against New York. … The Panthers’ previous regulation loss to the Islanders was Jan. 31, 2009. … Moulson’s other NHL hat trick was Dec. 3, 2009, at Atlanta.