Jack Capuano called it swagger, though it came out more like “swaggah” with his Rhode Island accent. Doug Weight called it mojo on Tuesday night.
Whatever it is, the Islanders do not have it right now. A 5-1 loss to the Bruins marked the Isles’ first three-game losing streak of the season and dropped them officially, if only marginally, out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot for the first time since October.
They are tied with the Hurricanes at 44 points, but Carolina has a game in hand. The Isles face three straight Metro Division opponents in a four-day span this week, so that playoff gap could be reversed or widened, depending on whether this team can recapture the swagger/mojo/whatchamacallit that drove a 15-7-2 start.
“Some guys have disappeared,” Weight said after a game that was nowhere near the New Year’s Eve debacle in Denver but still a lopsided affair, with the Bruins dominating zone time and the scoreboard over the final 40 minutes after a 1-1 first period. “We have to challenge them, challenge some ice times. There’s only so many things you can do. But some guys have to start answering the bell on a consistent basis.”
Remarkably during this three-game skid, the once-ugly goaltending has been good enough, Jaroslav Halak made 33 saves in his sixth straight start, including 16 in the second period when the Bruins rolled line after line to pin the Isles down in their own end.
Patrice Bergeron corralled a fluttering puck and batted it off Halak’s leg and in at 8:28 of the second to put the Bruins in front. From then on, the Isles managed just 10 shots on Tuukka Rask, expending far too much energy chasing the game and chasing the Bruins around their own end to really pose a threat.
“It’s what we want to do to other teams,” Anders Lee said. “Try to suffocate them until all they can do is dump the puck out and get a change. We have to be able to grind through these games.”
The Isles are still third in the league in goals per game, but they’ve mustered just four in the three losses. Mathew Barzal has hit a bit of a wall, though his line produced the lone goal when Jordan Eberle pounced on a turnover and beat Rask at 9:30 of the first.
There were soft plays at too many dangerous spots on the ice, failed clears and stick swipes where body position would do better. Weight spoke Tuesday morning about the coaching staff making adjustments to the defensive-zone strategy to better compensate for the absence of Johnny Boychuk and Calvin de Haan, but the Isles were caved in to the tune of a 35-16 Bruins shot attempt edge in the second.
“That wasn’t about Xs and Os,” Weight said, implying the team’s will just wasn’t there.
The Isles face the Flyers in Philadelphia on Thursday then return home for the Penguins on Friday and the Devils on Sunday before a five-day break. The games are huge — if you don’t think midseason games matter, check with last year’s Isles to see what lost points in January do to you in April.
“It’s obvious we have to defend better,” Adam Pelech said. “The (battle level) wasn’t good enough. It’s a major reason why we’re spending too much time in our own end.”