It took half a season for it to happen, but the Caps have finally suffered back-to-back regulation losses for the first time this season, the only team in the league that had yet to suffer that minimally damaging fate. Washington fell 4-3 to the New York Islanders on Tuesday afternoon at Capital One Arena, three days after a 6-4 loss to the Hurricanes in Carolina.
The Caps fell down early to the Isles on New Year's Eve afternoon in the District, climbed back into it and took a brief lead, but ultimately came up a goal short against New York, their closest pursuer in the Metropolitan Division.
"We haven't been as sharp as we were at different points of the season," says Caps coach Todd Reirden of his team's recent play. "The mistakes we're making now are ending up in our net. So we've got to continue to grow our game. It's definitely not a finished product, and something we've got to focus on here in the second half of the year is cleaning up some areas."
New York grabbed a 1-0 lead at 7:13 of the first when Casey Cizikas tipped Scott Mayfield's right point shot past Caps goalie Braden Holtby. Just over three minutes later, the Isles doubled their lead on a Brock Nelson goal off the rush, making it a 2-0 game at 10:39.
A mere 14 seconds after the Nelson goal, the Caps came to life. After winning the center ice draw, Washington got in on the forecheck and went to work below the New York goal line. Dmitry Orlov made a good read, jumping up from the left point to pick off a Johnny Boychuk clearing attempt, and quickly feeding Evgeny Kuznetsov on the weak side. Kuznetsov shimmied his way around Isles goalie Semyon Varlamov, then flashed his silky mitts, tucking the puck inside the right post to halve the Isles' lead to 2-1.
Video: NYI@WSH: Kuznetsov nets patient goal from in close
New York scored its two goals in a span of 3:26 in the first, and the Caps would net a pair of goals 3:23 apart when Tom Wilson tied it from the top of the paint at 14:17. After icing the puck, the Caps lost the defensive zone draw, but still managed the tying goal just 13 seconds later. Washington regained possession almost immediately and went on an offensive zone foray. Nicklas Backstrom's shot was blocked, but he got the puck back and carried around the back of the cage, whirled and fired a perfect feed to Wilson for a tap in, tying the game at 2-2.
In the first minute of the second, Washington grabbed a 3-2 lead on Kuznetsov's second goal of the afternoon. After the Isles lost the Washington zone and regrouped in their own end, Isles defender Adam Pelech turned the puck over to T.J. Oshie. Oshie fed Kuznetsov in the slot, and he fired to the shelf for a 3-2 Caps lead, 44 seconds into the second.
The lead was short-lived. Radko Gudas' turnover in neutral ice resulted in Cizikas' second of the game seconds later, knotting the game at 3-3 at 4:27 of the middle frame.
All the scoring for the game was in the books shortly after the midpoint of the middle period when Tom Kuhnhakcl netted what would prove to be the game-winner for the Isles. After taking a feed from Mathew Barzal behind the Washington net, Kuhnhackl slipped a shot past Holtby on the short side, shooting from the lower inside portion of the left circle. Coming at 12:34 of the second, the goal lifted the Isles back on top at 4-3.
Video: Postgame | December 31
Holtby blamed himself for the goal and the loss, as he was dented for four or more goals for the third time in as many starts for just the sixth time in his NHL career.
"I have to make a save on the fourth goal," sways Holtby. "It's as simple as that. I thought we played well in most areas. It just can't happen."
The Caps vied hard for the equalizer in the third, but weren't able to get another puck past Varlamov, despite outshooting the Isles 17-4 in the final frame and out-attempting New York by a whopping 36-10. But Varlamov stopped all 17, and his teammates got in the way of 10 more Washington bids, blocking 27 shots in the game, five more than the Islanders managed to get on net themselves.
"I didn't mind our first two periods; [the Caps] didn't have very many chances," says Isles bench boss Barry Trotz. "The third period, we were on our heels a little bit, but we jammed it up and got some big blocks."
With Tuesday's win, the Islanders head home with a 2-1 mark for a three-game road trip. They also pulled to within six points of Washington in the Metro standings. The Isles have three games in hand, and could make up that difference merely by winning those games in hand.
"It's pretty tough to play 82 games the way you want to play," says Kuznetsov. "Sometimes the games will be like that. We just have to think about the future and focus on the next game.
"Sometimes we're going to get two points when we do not deserve [them], but sometimes we're going to lose when we deserve a point or even more. But it's hockey, right? We just have to think about the future."