The Islanders really took one on the chin Saturday when they learned that they would be without captain and franchise player John Tavares. Coach Jack Capuano called Tavares' lower-body injury a day-to-day situation, but any day without him cannot be a good one.
It turned out that the Islanders actually put out a good effort without Tavares, exerting pressure in the third period and ultimately drawing even with the defense-first Devils.
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But it did not end well, what with the Devils' Travis Zajac taking one on the shoulder. He was hit by Marek Zidlicky's wicked slap shot from the left circle, the puck went in and the Devils secured a 2-1 win at the Coliseum.
"Now it's kind of old music for us, all this 'we played well but we can't catch a break.' We have to find a way to catch a break. That's what the good teams do," said Evgeni Nabokov, whose solid game in goal was ruined by the fluky bounce with 6:57 left. "We need the points right now."
Thomas Vanek pointed out that Zidlicky's shot was about "10 feet wide" and had no chance of going in if it hadn't hit Zajac, but Nabokov actually did not write it off as just a bad break.
"That's what happens when you go to the net,'' he said. "It goes off your face, your nose, your eye, whatever. That's what any coach will tell you to do. He did that. Kudos to him."
The day's big news, though, was the fellow who was not on the ice at all. So much for the refreshment of a four-day Christmas break. The Islanders came back to a stocking full of angst, what with their most indispensible player unable to play.
Tavares' unspecified lower-body injury ended his consecutive-game streak at 246, fifth longest in team history.
The last time he missed a game was Oct. 15, 2010, when he had a concussion. This time it was not clear how or when he was injured.
Capuano said Saturday morning that it did not occur during the most recent game, a solid 3-0 win in Detroit on Monday.
Was it from being taken hard into the boards by Radko Gudas of the Lightning on Dec. 17? There is no telling.
"It's something that's been lingering that's been bothering him," Capuano said.
(On his Twitter feed, Tavares issued a photo of himself playing indoor MiniSticks hockey on Christmas Eve.)
Capuano added that Josh Bailey suffered what appeared to be an upper-body injury Saturday night when he went hard into the boards.
Brock Nelson started as center on the top line but was replaced in the third by Frans Nielsen. That paid off when Kyle Okposo lunged and pushed the puck forward to Nielsen, who drove it past goalie Cory Schneider at 10:31 to tie the score.
"We were aggressive there, we finally got the goal. For some reason, once we got the goal, we kind of sat back again. Tough loss," Nielsen said.
Capuano said it was another step, however painful, in "the process." He said the deciding goal was more a result of a youthful defensive mistake, allowing too much room for Jaromir Jagr to set up a play. (He didn't mention names, but Calvin de Haan was on the ice.)
At least the Islanders did not pack it in without Tavares in front of 16,012. But as Nabokov said: "Did we play well? I think we did. But it wasn't enough."