Isles bemoan flat effort in loss to Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs' Clarke MacArthur, left, and Mike

Toronto Maple Leafs' Clarke MacArthur, left, and Mike Komisarek, right, battle for control of the puck with New York Islanders' Dylan Reese during the third period. (Jan. 23, 2012) (Credit: AP)

TORONTO -- Matt Martin said he thought Monday night's game with the Leafs would be the "most playoff-like game I've ever played in."

After a dreary 3-0 defeat that snuffed out the Isles' three-game winning streak, Martin had to reassess.

"It'll have to be tomorrow night now," he said of the return engagement with the Leafs Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum. "We knew what was at stake, what the standings were, and we came out flat."

The Islanders had only 11 shots on goal through two periods and were outshot 16-5 by a quicker, more determined Leafs team in the opening period. The Isles had a similarly sloppy first period on Saturday against the Hurricanes, but they weren't able to pile on John Tavares' shoulders this time, in Tavares' hometown.

Tavares, Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo generated what little attack the Isles had, but the Leafs' defense stayed strong in their own end and didn't allow many quality chances. At the other end, the Leafs had the Isles' defensemen on their heels and counterpunched well once they got the lead.

"I just thought they played better than us," Jack Capuano said. "They used their speed to chip pucks and get behind our 'D.' We ran into a good team tonight."

The Isles' second icing preceded their second shot on goal, and it led to the Leafs' opening score just 1:37 in. The Isles got the puck out of their end but could not change, and Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner turned the play back quickly. Evgeni Nabokov stopped Matthew Lombardi's initial shot, but the rebound bounced off Mark Streit and in.

Nabokov held it close for the next 50 minutes, stopping 32 of 35 shots overall. But after Michael Grabner whiffed on a redirect chance in front of Jonas Gustavsson, the Leafs charged out on an odd-man rush that Phil Kessel finished with a rebound goal at 8:10 of the third.

A two-goal lead was as good as 10 at that point as the Isles were shut out for the eighth time this season. That the Isles had a terrific stretch of three wins to make them feel better about their slim playoff hopes coming into Monday night's weak performance galled them.

"There's going to be times when you're not feeling your best, but this time of year, it's not hard to get up for games," Okposo said. "We needed four points from these two games. Now we need two."

A win Tuesday night and the Isles can go into the weeklong All-Star break still feeling as though there's hope. A loss, and the confidence gained by wins in Washington and Philadelphia will have dissolved completely, and there will be seven days to stew over a missed opportunity.

They are tied for 13th in the Eastern Conference, nine points out of eighth. Worse, they had a chance to close the gap on the Leafs, who are tied for that eighth spot.

"It's basically a must-win game," Martin said of the rematch. "We can't fall four games under .500 again. It'd be a tough climb back into this. Not impossible, but if we win tomorrow, we're in the thick of things still."

That may be more hope than fact. If they start the game losing puck battles and not playing with spirit, even the hope may disappear.

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