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.