John Tavares of the Islanders controls the puck against Jason...

John Tavares of the Islanders controls the puck against Jason Chimera of the Washington Capitals. (March 13, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

As the clock ticks down on a fifth consecutive Islanders season without a playoff berth, the losses are becoming more and more brutal.

Tuesday night's managed to top even the late blown lead to the Devils on Saturday and the last-second overtime loss to the Rangers on Sunday. The Isles let the Caps off the mat, blowing a three-goal lead and dropping a 5-4 decision in a shootout when Matt Hendricks beat Evgeni Nabokov in the fourth round.

To be plain, this game was a loss no matter how it ended beyond regulation: After John Tavares' second goal of the night and career-high 30th of the season with 8:16 left in the second, the Islanders held a 4-1 lead and the Caps, not exactly secure in eighth place in the East, looked like a team that had packed it in.

A lot like the game in Washington on Feb. 28, when the Isles held a 2-0 lead on the Caps, only to lose on two goals in the final 3:31 of regulation and Alex Ovechkin's OT winner.

"Those four games, that's eight points, and that would be huge right now," Andrew MacDonald said. "For whatever reason, we've changed the way we play in the third period. It's frustrating."

Ovechkin tied it with 9:45 to go in the third, getting a third whack at a puck after he was stopped twice by Nabokov and with Steve Staios and Nino Niederreiter unable to move Ovechkin from the slot. Dmitry Orlov brought the Caps within 4-3 just 1:51 into the third after he jumped off the right point, unseen by Michael Grabner, and wove through the slot alone to beat Nabokov.

And it was Ovechkin, not tied up by Frans Nielsen, who swept a rebound behind Nabokov with 52.4 seconds left in the second that set the stage. It marked the second time this season the Isles blew a three-goal lead; they have won just 14 of 23 games (14-1-8) they have led after two periods, a .609 winning percentage that is worst in the NHL.

"You have to make intelligent decisions," Jack Capuano said. "You have to recognize who you're out there against . . . The guys battle, but some of the decisions they make cost us."

The Islanders are 11 points back of the Caps with 12 games to go, a mountain of a climb that won't be overcome unless the Islanders run the table over the final three weeks of the season.

There are several games to look back on and wonder whether a better play here or a smarter decision there would have made the difference. In the past four nights, the Islanders have three prime examples, three blown third-period leads and games that may haunt them.

"It's a couple mistakes really," said Matt Moulson, who reached the 30-goal mark for the third straight season with a first-period score. "But we're not a team that can afford to make even a couple mistakes.

Notes & quotes:P.A. Parenteau (upper body) was injured last week but played for two games before needing a break Tuesday night. D Mark Eaton (back) returned after a one-game absence, sending Dylan Reese to the sideline . . . G Al Montoya was in uniform for the first time since Feb. 28, backing up Nabokov . . . The last Islander to score 30 goals in three straight seasons was Ziggy Palffy, from 1995-1998.

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