The alarming part for the Islanders was that they just could not close it out. Not only did that ruin their two-goal lead and spoil the spirit built up by their inspired comeback victory on Friday, but it was a bad omen for a team that needs to have a strong finishing kick for the season.
“They took it to us and we didn’t respond,” Casey Cizikas said after Matthew Tkachuk scored two third-period goals, the last with 1:05 left, to give the Calgary Flames a 3-2 win at Barclays Center on Sunday night.
“I don’t know what it is right now. It seems like an ongoing thing. We’ve just got to find a way to close these games. It’s unacceptable,” said Cizikas, who sparked a snappy beginning with a stealing, striding, diving goal 3:08 after the opening faceoff. His team added another in the second, then let things go downhill.
The deciding play was a bit fluky, with a shot from an old friend — former Islander Travis Hamonic — that was redirected by Tkachuk. “It hit the post, hit my skate and went in. Just a bad bounce for us,” goalie Jaroslav Halak said after making 39 saves. “But in the third period, we just didn’t play our game.”
Up for grabs is the true definition of what their game really is.
After an amazing comeback with four late goals plus an overtime winner Friday against the Red Wings, the Islanders had reason to believe their identity was taking a turn for the clutch. They could sense the momentum needed for a team that is just outside the current playoff cut in a very fluid Eastern Conference race.
Instead, this ending reverted to other recent late defeats, such as the one in Buffalo on Thursday. The Islanders have not won two in a row since Jan. 13 and 15.
Said John Tavares, “We seem to have done it a few times to ourselves this year — a couple lately — giving up way too many late goals. Just making it harder for us down the stretch to get where we want to get here.”
Unspoken — especially by Tavares — is the backdrop hovering over the Islanders: The team needs to prove it can be good enough to be a consistent playoff entry in order to convince the captain to stay after his contract runs out this spring. But that is an issue for another day. In this game, it was a matter of being outshot 19-7 and outscored 2-0 in the third period.
“We were just on our heels,” Tavares said. “They pushed harder than we did, just executed better and forced us to defend.”
Wiped out was the good feeling created by Anthony Beauvillier’s 50-foot shot against Mike Smith that made the score 2-0, and the excitement the Islanders showed when rookie Ross Johnston pummeled Ryan Lomberg in a fight late in the first period. “We were working hard,’’ Cizikas said, “but we weren’t working smart.”
Tkachuk’s first goal might have been the most deflating because he had so much space in front of Halak. Doug Weight said it was a forward’s responsibility to get back and cover (Jason Chimera was the nearest forward). Weight also was displeased with Mathew Barzal’s play, keeping the Calder Trophy candidate off the ice in late power plays.
Ultimately, it was a lost chance for at least one point and a lost day in a race against the calendar as well as the other playoff-hungry teams in the Metropolitan Division. “It’s a tough one to lose like this, obviously,” Halak said. “But we’ve got to turn the page and start from scratch on Tuesday.”