After a pair of home runs against the New York Rangers to clinch a playoff berth, the New York Islanders took their eye off the ball on Monday night in Buffalo.
The Islanders fell to the last-place Sabres 4-2 at KeyBank Center, leading 2-0 before giving up four unanswered goals to a pesky Buffalo squad. The loss snapped the Islanders' nine-game winning streak against the Sabres, including six wins this season. The loss was also the Isles second regulation defeat when scoring first (22-2-2) this season.
"We didn't play very well tonight," Adam Pelech said. "A couple of huge games against the Rangers to clinch a playoff spot and we came out sluggish today. This is an opportunity to fight for positioning in the standings and play for home-ice advantage and we didn't play our game tonight."
Pelech and Oliver Wahlstrom scored for the Islanders, while Tage Thompson, Rasmus Asplund and Sam Reinhart (2G) scored for the Sabres. Michael Houser stopped 34 shots in his first NHL start, while Semyon Varlamov stopped 36-of-39 shots in the loss.
While the Islanders had already punched their ticket to the playoffs, Monday's result was a setback in the quest for home ice.
The Islanders (67 points) dropped to fourth place as they were leapfrogged by the Boston Bruins (68 points), who beat the New Jersey Devils 3-0 on Monday and have a game in hand on the Isles. The Washington Capitals (71 points) scored a 6-3 win over the New York Rangers to jump into first place in the East, meaning the Isles would start the playoffs in DC if the season ended today.
The only positive result for the Islanders was Pittsburgh's (71 points) 7-2 loss to Philadelphia. The Islanders have a game in hand on the Penguins.
ISLANDERS ALLOW FOUR UNANSWERED GOALS:
Despite their spot in the standings, the Islanders knew they couldn't take the Sabres lightly on Monday. Josh Bailey had been in their position before, playing free and loose at the end of a long season and Barry Trotz went as far as to say he was worried about game after an emotional peak vs the Rangers.
"They seemed to find a way to hang around," Bailey said. "I've been on the flip side of things before and in their shoes late in the season when you know you're not going to make the playoffs. They played hard and we expect more of ourselves."
At first, the Isles took the Sabres threat seriously, going up 1-0 on Pelech's first period goal and seemingly doubling their lead before Ryan Pulock's point shot was called back due to Casey Cizikas interfering with Houser in the opening minute of the second.
The Islanders eventually got their second goal, off a Wahlstrom deflection, but took their foot off the gas and let Buffalo back into the game.
"I thought we played with a little bit of arrogance," Trotz said. "We were just saying it was going to be easy and we had a lead and then we just made it easy for them. I give them credit they played a real solid game."
Thompson gave Buffalo life with a power-play goal at 14:04 - snapping the Islanders streak of 19-consecutive penalty kills - beating Varlamov far side through a screen. Asplund tied the score, hanging around the crease and depositing a Reinhart feed after the Sabres leading scorer made a nice move around Scott Mayfield to get to the net at 11:25.
The Sabres kept pressuring in the third period - where they peppered the Isles with 17 of their 40 shots - with Reinhart eventually tipping a Rasmus Ristolainen shot at 15:56 for the game-winner. Reinhart scored an empty-netter at 19:08 to ice the game.
"We didn't play our game consistently enough and then we gave up 40 shots tonight and that's not like us," Matt Martin said. "We can feel a little humbled today and get back on the wagon tomorrow."
Pelech keyed the Islanders offense on Monday, picking up a goal and an assist on the Isles first two tallies.
Pelech opened the scoring at 9:15 of the first period, as his wrist shot deflected off of Henri Jokiharju and past Michael Houser to make it 1-0. The goal was Pelech's fourth of the season, which leads Islanders defensemen and is one shy of his career-high.
Pelech dished out the primary assist on Wahlstrom's second period goal, sending a slap pass into the slot that the rookie deflected by Houser. The goal was Wahlstrom's 11th of the season.
One game after Semyon Varlamov set the Islanders individual shutout record, the Islanders set a team record for a clean sheet at 212:35.
Varlamov's shutout streak ended at 248:00, when Tage Thompson beat him with a screened shot through traffic on a Sabres power play at 14:04 of the second period. Varlamov's streak was the 12th longest in NHL history.
PAGEAU OUT, ZAJAC IN:
JG Pageau sat out Monday's game, as Trotz opted to rest his versatile center. Pageau sat for precautionary reasons, but could have played in a playoff game according to Trotz and could be back in the lineup on Tuesday. Monday marked the second game Pageau had missed this season and first since March 14.
Travis Zajac drew back into the lineup after sitting the past two games as a healthy scratch. The center had two shots, two hits and won 50% of his draws in 14:26 TOI.
The Islanders and Sabres play again on Tuesday night, meeting for the eighth and final time this season. Puck drop is at 7 p.m.