WASHINGTON — Bo Horvat apologized before the game for a comment that sounded like a dig against his former team. Then all of the Islanders could have said they were sorry for their inexplicably weak start against the depleted, playing-out-the-string Capitals in a game that might keep them out of the playoffs.
“We’ve got to be ready,” Casey Cizikas said. “In a pivotal game like this, at this time of the year with what we’re trying to achieve, it’s tough.”
At the very least, the Islanders’ abysmal start — the Capitals scored twice in the opening 63 seconds and three times in the first period — cost them the ability to control their playoff fate as they lost, 5-2, on Monday night at Capital One Arena.
“It’s tough to explain,” coach Lane Lambert said. “We made mistakes right off the hop. We had the puck on our stick, we gave it to them. We lost a faceoff, they scored. We tripped over our own stick. Some errors were made. It put us in a hole.”
Lambert then was asked if the Islanders had enough intensity at the start.
“Apparently not,” he said.
The Capitals (35-36-9) apparently did in snapping a six-game losing streak.
The Islanders (41-31-9) are a point behind Florida and a point ahead of Pittsburgh, but the Penguins have a game in hand.
The Islanders will conclude the season on Wednesday night against the Canadiens at UBS Arena. Even if the Islanders win, the Penguins can leapfrog them for one of the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots with wins over Chicago on Tuesday and Columbus on Thursday.
The lone good news for the Islanders was that the Panthers — who will host Carolina on Thursday — failed to clinch a wild-card spot with a 2-1 overtime loss to the visiting Maple Leafs. Ironically, John Tavares scored the overtime winner to keep the Islanders’ chances of finishing with the first wild-card spot alive. That would allow them to avoid the record-setting Bruins in the first round if they qualify.
“I don’t think I have a specific reason on why things went the way they did,” Brock Nelson said. “Everyone knew the importance. I don’t know what exactly caused the start. That was the difference, and now we need a little bit of help.”
The Capitals, who won three of four against the Islanders this season, were playing without Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nic Dowd, Anthony Mantha and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. They could dress only 17 skaters instead of the usual 18 because of salary-cap constraints.
The Capitals’ Darcy Kuemper (38 saves) had his shutout bid spoiled by Hudson Fasching at 14:52 of the third period. Tom Wilson made it 4-1 with an empty-netter at 15:44 but Cizikas cut the deficit to 4-2 at 16:43 with the Islanders skating six-on-five. Dylan Strome added a second empty-netter just over two minutes later to seal it.
Ilya Sorokin, shaky at the start but able to keep the deficit at three goals heading to the third period, made 20 saves.
Strome beat Sorokin to the short side from the right circle to make it 1-0 just 36 seconds into the first period. Defenseman Rasmus Sandin scored from the left circle at 1:03 on a shot that Sorokin just missed. Craig Smith made it 3-0 at 13:13 as the Islanders couldn’t get a stick on a puck off the backboards and defenseman Adam Pelech tripped while Smith cut in front of the crease.
Before the game, Horvat, acquired from the Canucks on Jan. 30, apologized for saying “It’s a lot better than Vancouver” when asked about playing in front of the UBS Arena crowd during an on-ice interview after Saturday night’s 4-0 win over the Flyers.
Horvat, calling it a “heat of the moment” comment, said on Monday, “I really enjoyed my time in Vancouver. I’m sorry if it offended anybody.”