The ever-present threat to best laid plans in hockey is the fact you can win games you have little business winning, and lose games where you gave a victory-worthy effort.
That applies to both Islanders-Capitals meetings this month, as the Isles stole a 3-0 win in Washington earlier this month, only to fall 4-1 at home Saturday night despite one of their best efforts of the season. Goaltending, as so often the case, was the difference on both nights — tonight, it was Hunter Shepard earning a first star in his second NHL start.
The timing is tough in both instances. The win on Nov. 2 masked some befuddling play that would finally catch up to them as they lost their next three.
Tonight’s loss makes four, and right before the team heads off for a four-game road trip to Western Canada and Seattle. The loss drops the Isles to 5-5-3, as close to the bottom of their division as they are to the playoff spots.
First Period: That’s more like it
The first period was outstanding from the opening shift, the Islanders finally displaying the kind of front-footed, cohesive effort that we’ve been waiting for. As the period went along, it became clearer that there was an emphasis on offensive support from the blueliners, with forwards looking for them and quick to cover when a defenseman pinched in or followed a play deep into the zone.
Despite lots of good looks and chances, the Isles were trailing 1-0 at the midway point, with Hunter Shepard impressing in his second-ever NHL game. The Capitals cashed in one of their few chances, a faceoff win at 9:18 that Alex Ovechkin jumped on to beat Semyon Varlamov to the far side.
All four lines were buzzing, too, so it seemed a hard bit of luck for the Isles to be trailing as the first intermission approached. Thankfully, with 45 seconds left Shepard misplayed a puck behind the net, bouncing it off the skate of his intended teammate.
Bo Horvat pounced on the loose puck and sent it toward the net for Mat Barzal, who fanned under a tight check. But Alex Romanov was there in the high slot, and he sent it toward the open net right away, as Shepard was still diving to stop an anticipated shot from Barzal.
Romanov with his first of the season! pic.twitter.com/w7RW96RCVg— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) November 12, 2023
Not content to be happy with the late equalizer, the Islanders made a lot out of the dying seconds of the period, too. They generated multiple chances around the Capitals net and Anders Lee drew a penalty just before the buzzer sounded.
Second Period: Things backfired
Alas, the second period wasn’t quite as impressive. It started out okay, with an okay (but unsuccessful) power play and some good moments across the first half. But a couple of breakdowns left them trailing 3-1 heading into the second intermission.
On the go-ahead goal, the Isles were caught on a bad change and victimized by some great cross-zone passing. Varlamov made an outstanding, sprawling save across the crease, only to have Nic Dowd bat the puck out of the air and in.
this fourth line is inevitable right now pic.twitter.com/BrbH1a45N7— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) November 12, 2023
That was at 13:05. Six minutes later, in the final minute, another breakdown behind the net was a dagger. Aliaksei Protas, a 6’6” Belorussian whose name is fun to spell, was the beneficiary. His eighth NHL goal gave the Caps a 3-1 lead with 40 seconds left in the period.
Philly and Pro link up for a no-doubter pic.twitter.com/i8x91WWP2C— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) November 12, 2023
Very frustrating. The period was not that lopsided and could’ve easily titled in the Isles’ favor, but here we were.
Third Period: Extinguished
With the two-goal lead, the Capitals understandably played the third very conservatively. The Isles actually did a pretty good job breaking through the neutral zone block and getting time and chances in the Caps zone. But Shepard continued to be strong, and the Caps blocked lots of shots. Beck Malenstyn alone blocked three shots on one shift, manning Noah Dobson’s point.
Lane Lambert did lots of line mixing, an interesting tactic considering the Islanders weren’t lacking chemistry nor chances. Thankfully, the new combos were working the puck well to one another too...they just couldn’t catch a break.
With about five minutes left, it was a veritable shooting gallery by the Isles, with lots of smart work to keep things alive by two lines. Following the next faceoff, the Caps were kept on the ice for about two minutes after two failed empty-net tries ended up as icing calls, preventing a Caps change.
But still...nothing breaking through traffic, no good bounce, no openings. Alex Ovechkin finished things in the dying seconds with an empty netter, apparently the 56th of his career to tie Wayne Gretzky for the most freebies of all time.
As noted, it’s off on a long road, with three border crossings. It starts Monday in Edmonton, followed by Wednesday and Thursday in Vancouver and Seattle, then Calgary next Saturday.