The first meeting this season between the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders followed the pattern of most of last season's playoff games between the teams. The result was just about the same, too.
The Islanders started fast tonight, building a 3-0 lead. The Capitals twice came within a goal, but in the end New York was a 5-3 winner, extending its undefeated streak to five games.
Bryan Trottier and Brent Sutter each scored twice for the Islanders. Bryan Erickson, Bob Carpenter and Mike Gartner connected for the Capitals, who will return to action Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
"We can't give up five goals," said Washington Coach Bryan Murray. "They get two-on-ones and they score. We get a two-on-one and we can't do that. They go to the net better than we do at this stage."
The Capitals, shut out for 43 1/2 minutes, went to the net pretty well thereafter, but, as usual, it proved too little too late against the Islanders, who became the first NHL team to reach 100 goals this season.
"We seem to have an uphill battle every game," said Gartner, whose scoring streak reached 16 games, one short of his club record. "We're down, 3-0, and we have to open up more than we're really capable of and play a game that's not really our style. Maybe we have to take some chances early in the game."
The Capitals had few scoring chances in the first two periods and New York jumped in front on goals by Pat LaFontaine and Trottier, each coming as Rod Langway was deserted by defensive mates caught up ice.
Greg Gilbert's tenacious play to twice retrieve rebounds enabled Trottier to make it 3-0 during a delayed penalty against Gartner only 52 seconds into the third period. Goalie Pat Riggin, who came far out to block a Denis Potvin shot, was helpless when Gilbert set up Trottier in front.
Washington got on the board two seconds after the expiration of a tripping penalty to the Islanders' Stefan Persson. Craig Laughlin took Peter Andersson's pass at the New York blueline and made a perfect feed to Erickson cutting in alone on the left wing. It was Erickson's sixth goal.
The Capitals closed within 3-2 as Gartner faked Potvin to the ice, skated around him and passed to Carpenter in front. Although Trottier seemingly had Carpenter wrapped up, he managed to deflect the puck past goalie Bill Smith for his 13th goal.
"I don't know how it went in," Carpenter said. "I think maybe it hit my ankle, but I really don't know."
Sutter made it 4-2 with a sensational score off a faceoff at Riggin's right. He controlled the puck on the draw with Doug Jarvis, carried it in close on his backhand and managed to put it back on his forehand for a shot over Riggin's left shoulder.
"Sutter sees what we're doing and makes a great play beating Jarvis on the faceoff," Murray said. "He's so confident with the puck now; much more than before."
Still, the Capitals would not quit. Gartner picked the pocket of ex-Capital Gord Lane at center ice, fended off Lane with his left hand and eventually got both hands on the stick just as he was close enough, while falling, to lift the puck over Smith for his 12th goal.
The comeback ended with 3:54 on the clock, as Sutter took John Tonelli's pass from behind the goal line and beat Riggin for his 16th goal.
Washington's Scott Stevens was cross-checked to the ice moments before Sutter scored and he reacted so angrily that he was ejected by referee Kerry Fraser. It was Stevens' second game misconduct of the season and a third will bring an automatic one-game suspension. For each additional game misconduct, the suspension is doubled.
"Three times in the game, I got blindsided from behind," Stevens said. "It makes it like a five-on-four for them. The last time, they scored and Fraser's right there, but he won't call anything.
"You've got no chance when you're standing up facing the play and they hit you from behind. They do it on purpose to get a man advantage. If they can get away with it, maybe we ought to do it, too."
This was the Islanders' 10th victory in 11 home games. Although a pitiful 1-6-1 on the road, they trail first-place Philadelphia by only two points in the Patrick Division. Washington, in third, trails New York by seven.
"Our ability to come back is encouraging," Murray said. "We just don't seem to get enough early to stay even and we face a tough road the rest of the game."
Unless the Capitals hit a hot streak, the same may be said of the divisional race.