There were some familiar feelings after the first Islanders-Capitals meeting since last spring’s playoff series. Not the good kind of feelings, either.
The Islanders got banged around and could not beat Braden Holtby when it mattered most, dropping a 4-1 decision to the best team in the NHL on Thursday night at Barclays Center.
Brock Nelson scored 1:59 into the second period to cut the Islanders’ deficit to 2-1 and they pressed feverishly for the tie in that middle period. They came closest on a late power play in which they threw five shots on Holtby, who somehow kept the puck out on a pair of goalmouth scrambles.
Just after the Islanders’ advantage ended, Nicklas Backstrom stripped Marek Zidlicky of the puck behind the Islanders’ net and fed Nate Schmidt for a one-timed blast that beat Jaroslav Halak at 15:54. That restored a two-goal lead for a Capitals team that has been steamrolling the league through the first half of the season.
“We had some chances, plenty of them. We just have to find a way to put one in,” said John Tavares, who had 10 shots, five of which were Holtby saves. “We started a little sluggish after three days off, but we had lots of chances to get back in it.”
Halak, playing for the first time since Dec. 21, gave up a couple of goals he would want back in the opening period.
Jason Chimera’s short chip shot off Adam Pelech’s stick snuck behind Halak at 5:45. Ten minutes later, Alex Ovechkin snapped a wrist shot between Halak’s pads on the rush for his 497th career goal.
“You spot them a couple goals with the way their goaltender is playing, they’re tough to beat,” coach Jack Capuano said.
Chippy play was a strong memory of the teams’ seven-game playoff series last April, when Tom Wilson knocked Lubomir Visnovsky out of the series with a big hit in Game 3.
Marcus Johansson, not exactly known as a physical player for the Capitals, put a shoulder into Thomas Hickey’s head midway through the first period. He drew only a minor but very likely will receive some supplemental discipline from the NHL. Hickey left the ice for several minutes but returned and played the entire game.
“I think that’s half me trying to protect myself better and half him coming in a little high,” Hickey said. “I haven’t seen the replay but I know he’s not a dirty player at all.”
Ovechkin caught Travis Hamonic up high late in the third period, just before Backstrom sealed it with an empty-net goal. “If they want to play that way, we can do that too next time,” Hamonic said.
Ovechkin and Wilson both took unsportsmanlike-conduct minors for arguing about calls with the officials, so the Islanders certainly were giving some of it back. But with Holtby’s 34 saves and the timely goals, it was easy to see how the Capitals have soared to the top of the Metropolitan Division and the league. Washington (30-7-3) leads the second-place Islanders by 14 points.
“It wasn’t a terrible game by us,” Hamonic said. “They’re a hot team with a really good goalie. You can’t be playing catch-up against a team like that.”