The Nashville Predators now have only one regulation loss in their last 17 games -- that's nearly a quarter of a season -- so there's no shame in losing to them. But the way the New York Islanders faced Tennessee's team Thursday night in a 4-2 loss looked a lot like other disappointing too-little-too-late efforts over the last week that has them in a 1-2-2 slump and missing opportunities to take the lead in the race for home ice advantage. Shame is setting in.
Ryan Pulock scored his first NHL goal to tie it at 1-1, and Brock Nelson returned from a healthy scratch to score on a one-on-five scenario to briefly give them life at 3-2 early in the third. But as several players acknowledged afterward, starting slowly and playing catch-up is costing them. Thursday night fnishing slowly -- they were outshot in the third period 9-2 -- cost them too.
In the standings, it cost them a chance to again gain ground on the Rangers, who already led them by two points before adding a third via an overtime loss to the Kings in Los Angeles. (Some solace: The Rangers blew a 3-1 third-period lead in that one.) The Penguins lurk one point behind after a comeback win over the Hurricanes, while the Isles have another tough opponent from the NHL's toughest division awaiting them in Dallas on Saturday night.
Nelson's goal was fun at least, though totally indicative of what it would take for the Isles to penetrate the Preds on this night:
Hahaha what?! pic.twitter.com/7KUCUz5k5w— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) March 18, 2016
The Islanders were without Mikhail Grabovski, who was sent home from this road trip with an injury, and Casey Cizikas, also injured. Pulock replaced Brian Strait, who continues to get appearances whenever the coaching staff wants a change on the blueline.
Though the lineup returnees got on the board, there was too little from everyone else. According to War On Ice they were outchanced 29-13, including 15-5 in the high-danger areas.
James Neal's opener came while he was completely uncovered in the slot after an Isles misread, and Ryan Johansen's goal to make it 3-1 -- just 1:41 after Ryan Ellis had regained the Predators' lead in the second -- capped an end-to-end breakout by the Predators that finished with Johansen skating in all alone on Thomas Greiss, who stopped 28 shots.
Based on post-game comments, it sounds like the mood is darkening or the realization about their play is starting to manifest among the players. Captain John Tavares, who generated zero shots on Thursday -- though he won the faceoff and provided the screen on Pulock's goal -- acknowledged it starts with him.
Nelson, who returned for this game after his first scratch in 202 games [via Isles]:
"We have to try to be mentally ready right from the get-go and try to engage right off that first drop," Nelson said. "There’s no excuse really, just try to come up and play hard right away and hopefully we find a way to do that."
An almost exasperated Jack Capuano, according to Newsday:
"It’s been the same theme for us: It’s the common denominator that we try to make the sexy play and we don’t want to get pucks to the net," he said. "Give them a lot of credit: Every time they got an opportunity the puck was on net and that’s how you create zone time."
A season is full of up and down swings, and the Isles have still avoided any extended losing streaks. They are still 12-4-3 in their last 19, which has helped get them to within striking distance of home ice in the playoffs. But it's how they've played even in recent wins that has raised alarm with the coaching staff, and perhaps finally now with the players.
Tired? Banged up? All possible. The road ahead is busy, but it's the only road they can take.