Note: This originally reported Plekanec had a hat trick. No such thing, only hallucinations by the writer.
You wouldn't have to hear Jack Capuano's post-game comments to know that this one would be about "puck management" and special teams. The Islanders turned the puck over too much, left coverage open on too many odd-man rushes, and their special teams ills returned (or continued, if you consider the weak points of last night's win over the Penguins).
While they were technically in the game up until early in the third period, those signs of defeat were there and were ultimately their undoing.
The loss ended the Isles' four-game win streak and dropped them out of first place in the Eastern Conference, as Tampa Bay won tonight in a shootout. The Isles have one more game to add points before the All-Star Break, Monday afternoon against the Flyers.
A Brief Rendition of Events
The Islanders started on the back foot thanks to a first-minute penalty by Ryan Strome, who was too aggressive with his stick on the forecheck and got enough of Nathan Beaulieu to trip him and draw a minor. The Canadiens happily took what the Isles penalty kill gave them, with P.K. Subban scoring the first one on a blast.
Matt Martin and Brandon Prust followed that opening goal with a fairly lengthy but apparently harmless fight that ended with Martin on top of Prust's back.
Before and after the Canadiens opened scoring, the Isles buzzed at 5-on-5 with Brock Nelson and Michael Grabner taking turns setting each other up for golden chances at the top of the crease. Neither could break the ice, nor could John Tavares on a couple of prime chance of his own. Ryan Strome also didn't quite lift the puck enough over a prone Dustin Tokarski, who was excellent in the first period.
The second period also started with bad news: The Isles lost the opening faceoff, an airborne puck landed perfectly inside their blueline for Plekanec to set up Dale Weise at the far side of the crease, staying one step ahead of Josh Bailey in the race to the crease.
The Isles got one back from their hot hand: Kyle Okposo finished -- half-fanning but still getting the puck high -- after Bailey and John Tavares combined for a pretty passing play to leave Okposo alone in the slot.
But the PK struck again. Just six seconds after a penalty on Thomas Hickey for hooking Son of Thomas, the Canadians had their way with space in the Isles zone, setting up Plekanec for a perfect one-timer through a screen and inside the far post.
That came with six minutes left in the second period, and you'd be forgiven for thinking already at this point that it just wasn't happening for the Isles tonight. But they had more fight; two minutes later, Brock Nelson took a lead pass from Bailey and drew two Canadiens to him before dropping for Nikolay Kulemin inside the blueline. Kulemin waltzed in alone and made a few moves to beat Tokarski and bring the Isles back to within one.
The Bizarre Third Period
But the third period brought another early goal. This time it was Alex Galchenyuk converting after more Isles turnovers. That seemed to be it, as it wasn't long before the Isles uncharacteristically spent a minute getting hemmed in their own zone.
Plekanec David Desharnais added the Habs' fifth goal on a slapshot after a Nelson turnover in the neutral zone, though to be fair to Nelson that resulted from a series of messy plays that handicapped the breakout. Plekanec scored his second with just over six minutes left on yet another odd-man rush, which prompted an Isles goalie change.
And then, suddenly, with the Canadiens extending a two-goal lead to three (and four) on their third attempt of the night, it was they who checked out.
Anders Lee got one back a minute after Plekanec's hat trick, the rookie's seventh goal in the last 14 games. The Islanders tacked one more on with their cleanest power play of the night, Tavares finishing a satisfying but ultimately moot series of nice passing by a five-forward unit.
Even the Isles 6-on-5 play with the goalie pulled looked threatening, as they made several good interceptions of clearance attempts to keep the puck in the zone and toss pucks around Tokarski. Those threats ended when Frans Nielsen was penalized for interfering with Weise before he got to a puck that probably would have become an empty net goal.
Halak Starts Again
The Isles started Jaroslav Halak in both ends of a back-to-back for just the second time this season, a surprising decision that was either a sign of wavering confidence in Chad Johnson or a sign they expected to need their starter with a potential traveling letdown after last night's emotional win. (Or, perhaps both are contributing reasons).
Regardless, while Halak obviously wasn't great, it was the team that failed in front of him. Which made it doubly odd the Isles submitted him to this. He zipped off the ice after getting pulled (Montreal is like the Coliseum in having the visiting backup sit all by himself), his team having abandoned him in the third.
Maybe they had Johnson targeted for the easier opponent (Philadelphia) Monday afternoon at the Coliseum. If that's the case, then Johnson got a little warmup of about five minutes (broken up by some sixth attacker time) and a handful of shot attempts.
The Back-to-Back Effect?
With them getting in late last night (technically, in the morning at 1:30 a.m.) after a thrilling win at home, the worry was always there that the Islanders would suffer from the second game in two nights. They were 6-1-0 in such situations so far this season though, and they had some of the ingredients to play their game tonight.
I wouldn't say they truly looked "tired" until the third after falling two goals behind for the third time in the game. But their passing wasn't as sharp, their penalty kill was definitely not energetic, and until the game was out of reach, it was all the power play could do just to win possession of the puck off the boards.
If this one was a "schedule loss," then they followed the schedule.