Next up: the New York Islanders, who last made the playoffs in 2007 and last won a playoff series in 1993. The Islanders, who are a hybrid: part NHL team stocked with high draft picks; part AHL team, with a half-dozen players in uniform Tuesday who were plucked from the waiver wire.
“They’re a lot better team than they’ve been,” Caps General Manager George McPhee said just before faceoff. “Our guys know that.” He smiled his wan, midseason smile. “At least, I hope they know that.”
They certainly know it now, after the Islanders scored late for a 3-2 win that stung in more ways than the Caps could count. The numbers alone hurt; the Caps are now seven points behind Winnipeg for the lead in the Southeast Division and four points behind the Rangers — who have a game in hand — for the eighth playoff spot in the East with 15 games left in this truncated season.
But it was more than that. With three more games on the road the next week, the Capitals needed to keep moving in the right direction, especially against a team that is still figuring out how to win close games.
Knowing all that, having discussed the need to avoid a letdown, the Caps were completely AWOL the first eight minutes of the game.
The Islanders scored twice — both on point-blank shots with no Capital in the same area code. First Michael Grabner (a waiver-wire pickup three years ago) beat Braden Holtby to his glove side on a feed from another waiver pickup, former Capital Keith Aucoin — who was even more open than Grabner when he fed him the puck from the corner. Then Josh Bailey had time to sing both the Canadian and American anthems before teeing up a shot from the slot that beat Holtby on his stick side just 7:56 into the period.
Fans were still finding their seats and the Caps were down 2-0.
“We had talked about it before the game, but we didn’t come out with the intensity that we needed,” Matt Hendricks said. “After that, we recovered nicely and played a lot better, but we certainly made it tough on ourselves.”
Fortunately for the Capitals, the Islanders don’t know how to hold a lead. And, on a night when their one real star, John Tavares, looked a little worn out at times, Washington took control of the game, tying it 2-2 in the second period. It appeared that the Capitals had dodged the self-inflicted bullet of the game’s start because the only thing the Islanders do worse than hold a lead is play third periods.
Tuesday was no different — except that the Caps gave them a gift. “They had nothing going on in the third period,” Coach Adam Oates said. “And then we gave them a freebie.”
It is not a coincidence that the Caps began to play better March 19 in Pittsburgh, when Brooks Laich finally got back in the lineup after recovering from a nasty groin injury that had kept him out all season. Laich is one of those players who is never going to be a star but is key to his team’s success. Prior to the 28 games he missed to start this season, he had missed 22 games — in the past seven seasons.
He’s also a quiet force in the locker room. “He really made himself into a good player,” McPhee said. “He can do just about anything you want or need him to do out there. Guys respect that about him.”
With Laich back, the Capitals had won three of four. But he still is finding his hockey legs since returning and, as Oates admitted, he probably got too much ice time Tuesday in his fifth game in eight days.
“He made a tired play,” Oates said. “He was exhausted. I probably played him too much.”
The play happened late in the third period, when Laich came back for the puck and tried to carom it off the backboards to Mike Green. The puck spun off the boards and Green couldn’t control it. Instead, it caromed off his skate and Matt Moulson pounced on it and found Tavares trailing in the slot. Tavares, now one of two 20-goal scorers in the league, didn’t miss from there.
“My fault,” Laich said, stand-up as always. “I put the puck in a place where it was really tough for Greener to handle it. That’s on me.”
Perhaps, but the loss was on the whole team. The Caps have now had three-game winning streaks halted twice by the Islanders. That kind of margin for error simply doesn’t exist in a season such as this one.
These next three road games are against teams that are struggling: Buffalo and Philadelphia are behind the Caps in the standings and Carolina has lost six straight. So there is a chance to make amends for a lost night in Chinatown.
“You hate to let this one get away with a three-day break coming up,” Hendricks said. “You’d like to sit around with a four-game winning streak rather than thinking about how we lost this one.”
The rest — both physical and mental— should do the Caps some good. Like everyone else in the league, they have played a lot of hockey since the season finally began on Jan. 19. But when you are playing from behind, as they have done almost from the start, the feeling that you are skating uphill can wear you out quickly.
They had a golden chance to tilt the ice in their direction Tuesday and let it get away. There aren’t all that many chances left. The quiet after the game made it clear that everyone in the locker room was acutely aware of just that.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.