WASHINGTON -- The New York Islanders started fast, took a strong counter punch and found a winner late Tuesday night, and they will wake up Wednesday morning two points from a playoff spot because of it.
John Tavares scored his 20th goal of the season with 5:18 remaining in the third period, and the Islanders claimed a key 3-2 victory against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center in their quest for a spot in the top eight of the Eastern Conference.
"That line struggled a little bit in the first two periods but I talked with them after the second and I knew they were going to find a way," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of his top unit of Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes. "When you need a big goal, it's that line that usually comes up for us. It was good to see those guys respond in the third."
Washington defenseman Mike Green lost the puck in his feet to the left of his own net; Moulson scooped it up and fed Tavares for a quick one-timer from the right circle. Tavares became the second player to reach 20 goals this season.
The Islanders, who haven't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007, moved past the Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes into ninth place in the East with the victory. They trail the eighth-place New York Rangers by two points; the Rangers also have a game in hand.
"Not much has been accomplished just yet, so we've got to focus on the next game," Tavares said after the Islanders won the opener of a four-game trip. "Obviously we're happy with the result but it doesn't mean a whole lot if we can't get some momentum here."
Washington forward Brooks Laich took responsibility for the Islanders' game-winner, and coach Adam Oates called it a "tired play." Laich was on the ice for 50 seconds before the goal and 80 seconds in his previous shift.
"I was a little fatigued, I went back and wanted to send it behind the net," Laich said. "I didn't think I could get it to Mike direct, and I didn't want to turn it over in front of our net, so I sent it behind the net. Bad angle, bad decision by myself -- I put Mike in trouble and the result was the winning goal."
The Capitals (15-17-1) came home from a road trip with three straight wins and a chance to move into ninth, but a slow start and a second loss in as many contests against the Islanders damaged their charge towards a sixth consecutive playoff berth.
The visiting Islanders (15-15-3) jumped out to a two-goal lead early in the first period. Michael Grabner scored his 11th of the season at 5:24 of the opening period on a one-timer off a pass by Keith Aucoin.
This is Aucoin's first season with New York after four years in Washington's organization. He helped the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League to back-to-back Calder Cup victories, and had 22 points in 49 games for the Capitals. It was Grabner's first goal in six games.
"That one felt pretty good," Aucoin said. "I told [Grabner] I was going to get him two tonight, so I got him one. Any time you face your old team and you can help the team win, it is always fun."
Josh Bailey made it 2-0 at 7:56 of the period. Frans Nielsen took the puck behind the Washington net and three Capitals players went with him. He still got the puck to Kyle Okposo in the left corner, and then the Islanders wing found Bailey in nearly the same spot where Grabner connected from.
While Tavares' line has carried the Islanders at times, New York showed off some depth in this contest with goals from three different units at even strength.
"You can't expect that line to do it every night," Aucoin said. "Frans Nielsen's line has been playing really good the last week or so, and our line has been good the past three or four games. Any time other lines can chip it is going to fair well for our team."
Washington dominated possession for the opening 30 minutes, but didn't have the shot advantage to show for it. Okposo had a great chance for a three-goal lead on the power play, but Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby stopped his point-blank attempt.
Moments later when Matt Martin missed a long pass and another great chance at the third goal, the Capitals went the other way and Mike Ribeiro scored on the counter attack at 10:05 of the second period.
It was the 11th of the season for Ribeiro, who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and might have been playing in his last home game with the organization if general manager George McPhee were to deal him before the April 3 trade deadline.
Ribeiro is the highest-scoring potential UFA in the League this season with 35 points, but the Capitals have also clawed back into playoff contention and may try to keep him as their long-term option at center behind Nicklas Backstrom -- a hole the organization had been looking to fill for years before acquiring Ribeiro in June.
"I don't want to talk about that," Ribeiro said. "If it's going to happen, it is going to happen. We'll talk obviously before the trade deadline to see where they're at and where I'm at and we'll go from there. I don't want to think about it. I don't think about that before the game or after the game."
Washington's top line had the puck in New York's end a lot in the opening two periods, and defenseman John Carlson made it a 2-2 contest at the end of a long offensive shift. Marcus Johansson, who was inches away from a pair of goals earlier in the game, set up Carlson for a shot from the right point that leaked through Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov at 13:28 of the second.
Arthur Staple of Newsday reported it was the seventh time this season the Islanders have blown a two-goal lead. They are now 4-2-1 when they surrender such an advantage.
"Two goals in the first 10 minutes -- there is so much game left so obviously, they've been playing well lately and they're playing at home and they feed off the crowd," Tavares said. "At times we were not playing our best, but we stuck with it and did a pretty good job in our end for the most part, and [we] found a way in the third period to generate some chances and finally get one late.
"I think it is a good win. Those are tough games. You've got to learn to win those games."