UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- One could make the case that the Montreal Canadiens lost a "trap game" on Tuesday night.
Needing a victory to clinch a playoff spot against a team that was ousted from the race 24 hours earlier, the Habs got off to a slow start, then blew a 3-2 lead with 2:01 left in regulation in a 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
By failing to get that second point in the standings, Montreal missed out on clinching a playoff berth for a third straight season. Facing a team that had nothing to play for -- other than pride, of course -- could have possibly been a catalyst for the Habs' slow start.
"It's definitely not easy," Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges admitted. "You look at the standings and you're like, 'Oh well, this should be a cakewalk.' But you play these teams, they still have pride. They're not going to roll over and die and hand you the game. They've got a lot of things to play for, too. On top of that, they've got no pressure. They can just go out there and have fun and make plays. We didn't have that good enough, second effort (that you need) this time of year."
Montreal overcame a rough first period that saw it surrender 15 shots on goal as it trailed 1-0 on a goal by Isles forward Blake Comeau. The Habs responded in the second on goals from Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta to take a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes.
"We knew we had to pick it up and that we weren't playing very well," Gionta said. "We had to play a little more desperate and win more battles. I thought the second period was probably our best."
The Habs led for all of 2:01 of the third period before Sean Bergenheim tied the game for the Isles, thanks to a nifty move on defenseman Roman Hamrlik. Montreal settled down, though, and regained the lead when Maxim Lapierre beat Martin Biron on a breakaway with just under 14 minutes remaining. They held the 3-2 lead for almost 12 minutes, but Frans Nielsen sent the game to overtime when he beat Jaroslav Halak from the slot at 17:59.
"We've got to make sure when we're in these situations where we're up goal, we've got to clamp down," Gorges said. "We can't give opportunities like we did. It's just not good enough."
With the New York Rangers losing 5-2 at Buffalo on Tuesday night, the Canadiens could have wrapped up a playoff spot with a victory. Despite a hooking penalty against Andrei Kostitsyn 3:11 into the extra session, they survived and forced a shootout. But Lapierre and Mike Cammalleri came up empty in the breakaway competition, while Matt Moulson and Nielsen scored and put the celebration on hold.
"We couldn't hang on to the lead in the third, but that's hockey," defenseman Ryan O'Byrne said. "We got a point, but we're not happy right now. We wanted to win this game, especially with the Rangers losing. We don't want to fall to eighth, so we've got to keep pushing here."
Not all is lost, of course. Montreal could clinch as early as Wednesday night, should the Rangers lose to Toronto at Madison Square Garden. The Canadiens take the ice again on Thursday at Carolina.
"It would have been nice to win, but it is what it is right now," Gionta said. "We put ourselves in this situation. Now we just have to focus on the last two games."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL