If there was any spiritual irony in the latest setback to the New York Islanders' playoff seed aspirations, it was that their former teammates Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald assisted on the winning goal by Brandon Manning, the first of his NHL career, as the Philadelphia Flyers downed the Isles 4-1 in Brooklyn.
Streit and MacDonald are two would-be contracts the Islanders avoided as their rebuild matured, UFA-market rate deals they foisted on their rivals as Philadelphia descended into a rebuild of their own. But the Flyers' young players are starting to contribute, and that's why the Flyers are in the thick of wild card contention -- a place the Islanders didn't want to be but now find themselves with 11 games to go.
The Islanders started well -- Steve Mason being the only thing stopping them from grabbing an early lead on the first six shots, including a Nikolay Kulemin breakaway and an early power play. They had the slight edge in territorial play through much of the game. But their slump that was characterized by road struggles in a travel-heavy month carried over to their first game back at home.
After the Flyers finally opened scoring early in the second period, a determined Kyle Okposo tied it 90 seconds later. But Manning's goal nine minutes after that stood up as the difference. The third period brought only an early insurance goal from Sam Gagner and finally, an empty netter.
With the Rangers winning their game at home Monday, the "two games in hand" status remained, but now the Isles are back to five points behind them for second place, as well as three points behind the Penguins for third, and just three points ahead of the Flyers.
Their captain, playing in his 500th NHL game, was philosophical:
"It's not like we're not trying," said Islanders captain John Tavares, who played his 500th NHL game. "We just have to execute better and we just got to play with a little more confidence and believe in our game and the way we have to play. There can't be any panic, obviously we need some urgency and we need to get some points. It's crucial in the final stretch."
Wednesday brings another kick at the can, also at home, against an Ottawa Senators team whose season no longer carries realistic playoff hope -- but which is still close enough (seven points out of the wild card) to play desperate.
More from Tavares:
"The main thing is that we stay positive and stay together. Obviously we're in the final stretch, but we still like our team we're a good hockey team. We've played good hockey until this point and obviously it starts with me leading the way and I know I have to be better. We know this isn't our best, but I believe in our group and we have to refocus for Wednesday."
Their coach, Jack Capuano, defended the captain...
"I think with every leader you sometimes try to do too much because they want to win so badly and they want to help their teammates achieve the goal that they want to achieve. He is doing everything he can. He's trying. At the end of the day, he's trying to lead our team. He's doing the best he can right now but the supporting staff, our other guys - it's nonexistent right now."
...while bringing out some familiar language from struggling seasons of the past:
"I thought we had plenty of chances. There's a lot of guys that are playing with a lot of urgency and you've got other guys that are struggling. You can't have four or five guys struggling at this time of year if you're going to be successful. We are the type of team that is built a certain way. We need all twenty guys going. We can't have any passengers on any given night or we are going to find ourselves in a struggle to win that hockey game. You just hope that some of the guys that are struggling now can find their way…"
It's all familiar, but also true. Such is the eternal struggle of hockey and the ever-elusive "consistency." Overall the Isles gave a much improved effort Monday night but with nothing to show for it. If the bounces and luck even out over the course of the season, consider this a balancing of the ledger for some of the Western road games that they won despite themselves.