Breakout passes from the defensive zone and navigating the neutral zone were both issues for the Islanders. But it was what happened once they did enter the offensive zone that was more noticeable.
Too often, the Islanders simply seemed reluctant to put the puck on net in Saturday afternoon’s 2-0 loss to the Capitals at UBS Arena, which snapped a three-game winning streak.
"They kept us to the outside five-on-five," captain Anders Lee said. "We’ve got to get to the interior."
The last-place Islanders (11-13-6) were outshot, 36-23, and outchanced 57-43 while managing just 13 shots skating five-on-five. They were shut out for the fourth time this season but the first since a 1-0 loss to the visiting Penguins on Nov. 26.
"Disappointed with the result and a little bit disappointed with our execution," said associate coach Lane Lambert, who ran the Islanders’ bench for a third straight game with Barry Trotz remaining in COVID-19 protocol for a second game after also missing one while mourning the passing of his mother.
"I didn’t think we made a lot of plays. We weren’t handling the puck the way we could, should or normally would."
Trotz might clear protocol in time for the Islanders’ next game, Monday night against the Flyers at UBS Arena to start a home-and-home series on back-to-back nights.
It’s part of a crucial stretch for the Islanders against Metropolitan Division opponents as they try to battle their way back into playoff contention against long odds. Saturday marked the first meeting against the Capitals (21-8-9) after their scheduled game at UBS Arena on Dec. 23 was postponed, one of nine Islanders’ games that still must be rescheduled.
The loss left the Islanders 23 points behind the third-place Capitals — who hold the last guaranteed playoff spot in the division — and 18 points out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot.
"We’ve got to play a full 60 [minutes] against a team like that every time we’re out there," Casey Cizikas said.
The Islanders have played at least five fewer games than any Eastern Conference team currently holding a playoff position. But games in hand don’t help without earning points.
"Yeah, we sit up here and talk about we’re in a hole," defenseman Scott Mayfield said. "We’ve got to dig ourselves out. It’s tough. We’ve got to get those points. We’ve got to start racking up wins, racking up points and we didn’t today."
It was the Islanders’ first loss in regulation since a 2-1 defeat at Detroit on Dec. 14, though Saturday marked just their sixth game since then. They had been 5-0-1 at home since Dec. 11.
The Capitals led 1-0 after a sleepy first period by the Islanders, who were outshot 16-7 and went without getting a puck on net for a 12-minute stretch.
Tom Wilson gave the Capitals the lead at 4:35 as he was left open in the high slot to beat Semyon Varlamov past his blocker. Mathew Barzal and Josh Bailey along with defenseman Robin Salo all collapsed on Aliaksi Protas, who set up Wilson, while Lee trailed the play.
Alex Ovechkin added an empty-netter with 10.2 seconds left in regulation.
"It felt like a game where we had a layoff," Lambert said. "I was expecting more of a lack execution potentially last game than this game. We knew the magnitude of the game and we didn’t get the result."
The Islanders were coming off Thursday night’s 3-2 win over the visiting Devils after a 12-day layoff.
The Islanders were 0-for-3 with seven shots on the power play and their best chances in the second period came on their second man advantage. Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek was forced to stop both Oliver Wahlstrom and Brock Nelson from the low slot.
But Bailey, in a play that epitomized the Islanders’ shooting woes, opted to pass from below the right circle despite getting a great look at the net.