After a four-day break for the NHL All-Star Game, the Capitals and Islanders returned to action on Tuesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Caps scored first and they also scored last, but they surrendered three unanswered in between and suffered a 3-2 loss at the hands of the Islanders, who are now 6-0-1 in their last seven games.
"They played with a lot of desperation in their game," says Caps coach Barry Trotz of the Islanders. "They're in playoff mode right now, you could tell. They've got four lines that are going really well and they've got a good buy in."
Video: Trotz talks after a 3-2 loss to the Islanders
"I thought we came out really well. We had some chances in the first that we could have been up a couple of goals instead of one. They hung around and scored a big power-play goal and it was going to be one mistake. We made a mistake in our own end, turned the puck over, and they were able to capitalize on it. Overall, I thought both teams played pretty well and it was going to be a mistake here or a mistake there that was going to be the difference."
Washington had the better of play early in the game, and the Caps got out to a 1-0 lead on an Evgeny Kuznetsov rush goal at 4:41 of the first. Quick puck advancement from Brooks Orpik to Justin Williams to Kuznetsov put the Caps' center in prime shooting real estate, and he zipped a shot from the slot past New York netminder Thomas Greiss to give the Caps an early advantage.
The Caps had some chances to add to that lead, but were unable to do so. New York drew even on a power play in the second.
Video: WSH Recap: Ovechkin, Kuznetsov score in 3-2 loss
The Isles won a faceoff in the Washington zone, and an initial Andrew Ladd shot rang iron behind Caps goaltender Philipp Grubuaer. The puck took a favorable New York bounce, right to the stick of Isles forward Alan Quine, and he quickly deposited it into a yawning cage to make it a 1-1 game at 2:41 of the second period.
There wasn't much room available in the middle of the ice for either side throughout the night, and it was a 1-1 game heading into the final 20 minutes. It seemed as though it would come down to a bounce or a mistake, and the Caps made the mistake that tilted the tilt in the Islanders' favor.
Caps center Jay Beagle turned the puck over behind the Washington cage, and a series of quick passes from Anthony Beauvillier and Brock Nelson combined to set up Ryan Strome for an easy tap-in at the back door, giving the Islanders a 2-1 lead, but with plenty of time (13:29) remaining.
Washington pressed for the equalizer, but missed the net on some of its best looks and had some one-and-done forays into New York ice as well. With Grubauer pulled for an extra attacker, Isles defenseman Johnny Boychuk scored into the vacant cage with 68 seconds left, expanding the New York lead to 3-1.
Just over 20 seconds later, Alex Ovechkin's center point bomb eluded Greiss, narrowing the New York advantage back to a single goal with Grubauer again off for the extra attacker. But the Isles held on, sending the Caps to their second loss in their last three games.
Video: Caps players talk after a 3-2 loss to the Islanders
"I thought we controlled the game," says Kuznetsov, "but in the second period we gave up some good looks and they got momentum on us. In the third period, it's always whoever is going to score [first], that team is going to lead the game. We gave up the goal, but overall it wasn't a bad game after a three-day break. We're looking forward to [Wednesday]."
After playing six of their last seven games on the road, the Caps return home to host Boston on Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
Since the start of December, the Caps are 20-5-4. Three of those five regulation losses over that span have come against the Islanders. New York now has a three-game winning streak, with those victories coming over Columbus, Montreal and Washington, respectively.
When Washington last visited Brooklyn just over a month ago, the Islanders were a dozen points south of the final playoff berth. Tuesday's triumph over the Caps moves them to within three points of Philadelphia for the second wild card berth, and the Isles also hold three games in hand.
"We're digging ourselves out," says Isles coach Doug Weight. "We started entering relevance a week ago or 10 days ago, and I think we're in the conversation now. We have a long way to go, but guys believe and with each win their confidence in each other and the way they're playing, we expect to win before the puck is dropped."