NEW YORK — Perhaps Capitals Coach Barry Trotz wanted to spare his goaltender, one of the few Washington players who hadn't taken the evening off in the defensive zone. After the New York Islanders scored their third goal less than 22 minutes into the game, Braden Holtby was yanked from net in favor of Philipp Grubauer.
Thanks to some shoddy defensive play, the Capitals' four-game winning streak was snapped in a 3-1 loss to the Islanders on Monday night at Barclays Center.
"We weren't sharp around Holts," Trotz said.
"That, amongst other things," forward Lars Eller said. "Sloppy coverage in the zone, coming back into the zone off the rush, just little things that should be easily correctable going forward."
This marked Washington's first road game in more than two weeks, and it got off to a rough start. Just 2:36 into the game, Holtby made a pad save on a shot by Cal Clutterbuck, but Brock Nelson snuck onto the ice after a change, left alone on the opposite side to swat in the rebound. The Islanders entered the game with the Eastern Conference's best record at home (8-1-2), and they improved to 10-0-0 when leading after the first period.
New York nearly made it a two-goal lead through 20 minutes when forward Anders Lee appeared to score with 4:36 left in the opening frame. But the goal was wiped off the board because Lee was ruled to have pushed Holtby's pad, along with the puck, across the goal line. Before Monday night's game, Washington (18-12-1) had scored the first goal in six straight contests.
But what was a manageable one-goal deficit after the first period quickly devolved into a rout. On the first shift of the second period, Islanders defenseman Calvin de Haan skated up the right side and toward the goal line, backhanding the puck to Andrew Ladd in front, who easily tapped in a goal as Nicklas Backstrom got to Ladd just a little too late to tie up his stick.
"We didn't seem to have the legs in order to compete against them tonight," forward Tom Wilson said. ". . . When you come out and you don't have the legs, in the system that we play, sometimes if a guy gets beat, we have to make sure that secondary [player is there as] kind of a safety blanket. We didn't have that on numerous occasions tonight."
The Capitals were caught out of position again less than a minute later. Islanders captain John Tavares, who is third in the NHL in goals, skated behind the net all alone, left wide open at the side for Josh Bailey's pass. He scored his 18th goal of the season, beating a lunging Holtby to put the Islanders up 3-0 less than two minutes into the second period. Holtby had faced 12 shots to that point.
"There's always people in the high-danger scoring areas, but the problem was today we weren't there to cover them most of the time," Eller said.
Grubauer was scheduled to start Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche, but because he was in net for the last two periods against the Islanders, it's likely Holtby will be the starter again in the second game of this back-to-back set. Grubauer saved all 17 shots he saw Monday.
"I don't know. We'll talk about it right now," Trotz said. "Just based on performance, we'll see where we are."
When the Capitals did start to show signs of life in Brooklyn — Trotz tried every line combination imaginable in the second half of the game — it was arguably too late with the team already in a three-goal hole. New York goaltender Jaroslav Halak was sharp; he has long been a thorn in Washington's side, single-handedly beating the Capitals when he stopped a barrage of shots as Montreal's goaltender in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. He made 25 saves before Washington got its first goal Monday, Dmitry Orlov capitalizing on a two-on-one with Chandler Stephenson in the third period.
Before this loss to the Islanders, the Capitals had won seven of their previous eight games, climbing the Metropolitan Division standings. Had Washington defeated New York, it would have kept pace with the Columbus Blue Jackets in a tie for first atop the division. Instead, the Capitals are tied with the Islanders, just four points separating the top six teams in the Metropolitan, meaning there's little room for error.
"I think overall, everybody needs to be a little bit better," Grubauer said. "But we played the right way a bunch of games ago, we got onto a little streak and we lost one. Now we get going again and have got to get back to the way we played before."