For two days, the Capitals talked about needing to start strong against the New York Islanders. For two days, they insisted they would not take the perennial Eastern Conference doormat lightly.
But the first game after a long road trip is often tricky and even the best of intentions can disappear into a fog of fatigue and bad decisions. That's how Tuesday's game ended in a stinging 3-2 defeat. Defenseman Mike Green fumbled a puck next to his net, had it stripped by New York's Matt Moulson and watched in horror as John Tavares skated onto a pass and ripped the game-winner past Braden Holtby in goal.
It was just one moment in a 60-minute game and teammate Brooks Laich took the blame for a bad pass that put Green in an awkward position. But no matter who was at fault, the goal with just 5:18 left snapped a 2-2 tie and left Washington's playoff hopes again in question.
"Most of the goals will be [small] details that will cost you goals," said Caps center Mike Ribeiro. "We come back, misplay the puck and next thing you know it's in the net. But you cannot judge the game on that play. It's a 60-minute game and there's other plays that you could have done better."
The Caps (15-17-1, 31 points) fell further behind the No. 8 seeded New York Rangers for the final playoff spot and the Southeast Division-leading Winnipeg Jets for the No. ?3 berth. Both of those teams won on Tuesday night. Washington is now seven points behind the Jets, four points behind the Rangers and in 11th place in the conference with just 15 games remaining.
The Caps hadn't fallen behind first in a game since March 16 at Boston. That was also the last time they were down 2-0. This wasn't the time to revisit that trend. For two days, Oates preached about a fast start and noted his concerns about the first home game after a long road trip. Too often family commitments, fatigue and a general sense of accomplishment can lead to a sluggish effort.
Just 7:56 into the game, Washington was down following a pair of goals by Michael Grabner and Josh Bailey -- both from prime shooting spots when they were left wide open. Former Caps forward Keith Aucoin stripped defenseman John Carlson along the far wall and found Grabner across the ice. Bailey scored off the rush on a pass from teammate Kyle Okposo.
But Washington roared back in the second period. Troy Brouwer crossed into the offensive zone off a rush and slipped the puck to Ribeiro. He stickhandled deftly around Islanders forward Marty Reasoner and fired a shot over Evgeni Nabokov's right shoulder to make it 2-1 at 10:05 of the period. Just 3:23 later, the Caps tied the game when Carlson's point shot slipped into the corner of the net. But in the end it wasn't enough.
"We need points. We dug ourselves a big hole to start the season," defenseman Jack Hillen said. "We're not taking anything away from this game except that we didn't get any points."