Islanders 3, Caps 2: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. The New York Islanders aren’t a bad team at all. They’re in the Eastern Conference playoff race as much as anybody else in this lockout-shortened NHL season. But the Capitals made their own lives decidedly harder by not finding a way to win against New York at home on Tuesday. There just isn’t enough time left to leave points on the table. And we’ve seen them do this before in 2013 – third-period leads lost in games at Ottawa and Toronto spring to mind.

“We talked about the Islanders. They’re a better team than people think,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “They’ve improved. They do a lot of things well. They’re well coached. I don’t think we took them lightly. We made a couple mistakes, but after that, you know, we played good hockey. There’s no easy games, unfortunately.”

Washington is now four points behind the New York Rangers for the final playoff spot and seven points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the Southeast Division lead. There’s only one game left against the Jets. There aren’t any against the Rangers. Tough to make up ground without those games. The Caps would actually be better off with Carolina leading the division since they play the Hurricanes two more times, including next Tuesday. Not the situation they find themselves in, though.

2. Mike Ribeiro made a real good point after Tuesday’s loss: These games never come down to one play. So, yes, Mike Green fumbled a puck at his own goal line, lost it to Matt Moulson and that led to John Tavares’ game-winning goal. But Brooks Laich was just as responsible and took full blame for what Oates called “a tired play” afterward. Laich admitted to being “fatigued” at the end of a :50 shift and didn’t want to risk a direct pass across the middle of open ice with Moulson lurking.

There was also some bad luck when the indirect instead hit the end boards and then the back of the net before it even got to Green. Fellow defenseman Karl Alzner was as surprised as anyone at the mishandle and didn’t jump up quick enough to take away the stick of Tavares, who just happens to be one of the world’s best finishers. Bad times all around. Still – it’s a play you expect your best defenseman to make. For whatever reason, Green wasn’t made available to reporters afterward and the team was off on Wednesday so we couldn’t ask what happened from his point of view. Alex Ovechkin also said it was a bad decision by Laich, for what it’s worth.

But Ribeiro’s point stands: Marcus Johansson drilled both posts with a shot in the first period. Troy Brouwer, Matt Hendricks and Nicklas Backstrom all had quality scoring opportunities as the game progressed. Washington had plenty of other chances to break the tie once they rallied from 2-0 down. The Caps – from Laich to Oates to several others postgame – believe they had the better of the territory and the chances. They didn’t take advantage and were in position for a bad break to cost them.

3. Oates is no dummy. He was the one hammering the idea that the Caps had to avoid a slow start after a successful 3-1 road trip that had them on the cusp of a playoff spot. He mentioned it Monday and Tuesday to reporters. He spoke with his players about it, too. But just because you know something is possible doesn’t mean you avoid it. The Caps didn’t have their legs early and couldn’t hold New York off. They fell behind 2-0 in a game for the first time since March 16 in Boston. It was exactly the start the Islanders needed.

Laich was having none of the “slow start” stuff. It rang too much like an excuse to him. But it was also a fact – as defenseman Jack Hillen noted. It was nice that Washington fought its way back into the game. But there are no moral victories with 15 games left. It’s a rough business.

Said Ribeiro: “You know your legs might not be there, but your head has to be there and we made small mistakes that cost us.”

“Not necessarily, no,” defenseman John Carlson said when asked if there was a reason for the rough first 10 minutes. “I think we’ve started out real hot on the road. And sometimes when you come back home, you think it’d be better, but you kind of expect it almost when we’ve been so good at the start.”

4. To a man the Caps said they wished they had a game right away to put the sting of this one behind them. It’s probably best that they don’t. From a low-energy first 10 minutes to the obvious fatigue that led to mental mistakes late, they could use some rest after eight games in 13 days in six different cities. They went from Raleigh to Boston, came home for a game, and then went to Pittsburgh, Winnipeg for a two-game series, immediately to New York and back home again for the Islanders. That is the definition of a whirlwind.

Every team in the league will deal with a stretch like that this season. But it does mean nights like this are unavoidable. For the first time since Feb. 18-20 the Caps get a day off and then two legitimate practices. They need it. But it won’t be an easy sitting back and watching other teams in the conference gobble points. Someone has to. They’re all playing each other.

5. If you’re wondering what happened to center Mathieu Perreault, he had the shield on his helmet break and cut him in the face. Perreault was on the ice for just three shifts in the third period as he got stitches, but Oates didn’t believe the injury was serious.

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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