Semyon Varlamov #40, Nick Leddy #2, Casey Cizikas #53 and...

Semyon Varlamov #40, Nick Leddy #2, Casey Cizikas #53 and Ryan Pulock #6 of the New York Islanders look on after the Washington Capitals tied the score in the third period at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

By the time Barry Trotz was through gushing in great detail on Saturday morning about Alex Ovechkin and several of his Capitals teammates, one wondered if the Islanders should even bother taking the ice.

Then the game began at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, and by the end of the second period, the Islanders looked like the better team, leading by three goals.

By the end of the third, they looked like a team with a season on the brink.

Too harsh? It’s still only mid-January. But after an epic third-period collapse in which the Capitals scored five unanswered goals for a 6-4 victory, it is fair to wonder.

The Islanders have played five games in the past eight days and lost four (one in overtime), beating only the lowly Red Wings, and they have lost back-breakers to two rivals in their last home games until February.

On Thursday, they fell to the Rangers, 3-2, on a goal with 24.6 seconds remaining.

Suddenly, the wild-card posse is gaining on them. If they lose in regulation to the Hurricanes on Sunday, their hold on third place will be down to one point.

“They raised their level,” Anders Lee said of the Capitals. “We’ve got to stop the bleeding. We have to dig in and find a way. We can’t accept that.”

Fans could not, either. What had looked like a feel-good laugher against the team with the most points in the NHL turned into shock and bitterness as the crowd trudged off into the snowy afternoon.

At first glance, the main culprit was Ovechkin, who ranks no lower than second on the list of greatest players of the 21st century and appears to have lost little at age 34.

He entered the game ranked 11th in NHL history in goals with 689 and ended it tied for ninth at 692 after a second consecutive hat trick, with two of the goals (one an empty-netter) coming in the third.

“Their superstar in Ovechkin raised his level to the greatness that he has,” said Trotz, who coached the Capitals to the Stanley Cup a year-and-a-half ago. Still, Trotz added, “Some of it’s on us. Most of it’s on us. Good hard lesson.”

By that he meant a lesson in not falling into the sort of “soft” play he lamented. But what lesson should the rest of us take from the debacle?

Remember, if the Islanders finish in second or third place and win in the first round of the playoffs, the Capitals likely will be waiting for them as they try to advance past the second round for the first time since 1993.

Saturday’s events did not bode well.

“We learned a lesson out there,” Lee said. “We shouldn’t have to have one. That’s a team over there that’s been extremely successful for a reason. They’ve won a championship for a reason. They exemplified that in the third.”

Said Ryan Pulock, “They’re never out of it, so you just have to battle to the end. Sometimes you just have to simplify, be simple, get pucks out and live to fight another day. Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job of that.”

The Islanders have been wildly inconsistent since their 17-game point streak ended in late November. Now they are at a crossroad.

After Sunday’s game in Raleigh, they will visit Madison Square Garden on Tuesday to try to salvage one victory out of three mid-January games against the Rangers. Then they are off until Feb. 1.

It would be a very good idea to win at least one of the next two games.

Trotz said after the second period that he reminded his players of the Capitals’ penchant for late comebacks and their “championship pedigree.”

The last time the Islanders could say that about themselves, no one on the ice Saturday had been born yet.

If this keeps up much longer, they might not be able to start thinking about it again until next season.

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