John Tavares of the Islanders grimaces after falling into the...

John Tavares of the Islanders grimaces after falling into the net during the third period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nassau Coliseum. (Jan. 23, 2014) Credit: Jim McIsaac

These Islanders certainly do confound.

They've been at their best lately when down a goal, preferably two.

Up two? A mess.

They put both sides of that two-goal coin into play last night, coughing up a two-goal lead over the Penguins, falling behind by two and nearly rallying before losing to Pittsburgh, 6-4, at the Coliseum.

It was the third straight game in which the Islanders fell behind by two goals in the second period, but they came back to beat the Flyers and Rangers earlier in the week.

It also was the second time in four games that the Isles broke out on top 2-0, only to see it dissipate -- and "see it" is the right phrase. They did a lot of watching Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz work their way into a tie, then the lead, then a crucial two points for the Penguins.

"For some reason, we're not good enough without the puck, I guess," said Frans Nielsen, who had the tying goal on his stick during a 50-second two-man advantage for the Islanders in the final seven minutes of the third period but was denied twice by Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff. "We've got to make sure they work harder for the chances they get. We made it too easy for them to tie it up."

Michael Grabner and Brock Nelson scored in the first 8:21 for a 2-0 lead. Kunitz, then Crosby, scored 1:58 apart and it was tied at 11:24.

The second period was even worse, with the Islanders generating almost nothing and the Penguins taking advantage. Rookie defenseman Olli Maatta cruised down the slot untouched to beat Kevin Poulin at 5:35 and Kris Letang buried a feed from Crosby for a 4-2 Penguins lead after two.

"You watch 87 out there -- he was chipping pucks and going after them, he wasn't overhandling the puck and he's the best player in the world," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of Crosby, whose goal and two assists gave him 83 points in 45 games against the Islanders, his most against any team. "Not everybody had a good night for us."

John Tavares, second to Crosby in the NHL scoring race, was among those struggling for two-plus periods. Josh Bailey's first goal in 37 games -- his first since scoring the winner in Pittsburgh on Oct. 25 -- got the Islanders within 4-3 at 3:10 of the third, but Evgeni Malkin answered at 5:59.

About five minutes later, Tavares fed Kyle Okposo, whose shot sat under Zatkoff's pads before Matt Donovan dived for it and the Penguins' Paul Martin appeared to push it over the goal line. The on-ice officials did not signal goal, but a video review gave the Isles the score at 10:55 and a 5-4 deficit.

Tavares then drew penalties 1:10 apart, giving the Islanders the two-man edge with 7:05 to go. Bailey tipped a pass to Nielsen alone to Zatkoff's left, but he couldn't lift the puck over the goaltender's pad. The Penguins' Brandon Sutter scored an empty-net goal with four seconds left.

"We had a couple great looks," Tavares said. "When you get those chances, you have to put them in."

That goes for the early lead as well. The Islanders have held a two-goal lead in 14 of their 53 games this season. Their 6-4-4 record in those games is terrible, a sign that their uneven play could keep them in the Metropolitan Division cellar despite their recent surge.

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