The Islanders had plenty of reasons why they couldn't hold on to a two-goal lead Saturday night, more than enough legitimate excuses for giving away a much-needed point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Sabres at Nassau Coliseum.
After a grind-it-out, 2-1 overtime win in Ottawa the previous night, there were some tired legs, to be sure. The loss of top-pair defenseman Travis Hamonic 5:21 into the third period after a deflected shot caught him in the nose made it tougher for the Islanders to hang on against a desperate Buffalo team, which beat the Isles for the first time in three tries this season.
But the time of year and the situation the Islanders are in leave no room for excuses. They could have gritted their way to a third straight win and kept pace with teams around them trying to move up the Eastern Conference standings. Instead, they were outworked by a team in the very same predicament as themselves.
For that, there's no excuse.
"We talked after the second period about how good playoff teams find a way to win these games when they're not at their best," Andrew MacDonald said. "We were kind of hanging on there for the second half of the game. At this stage of the game, you have to win these ones to have a shot in the long run."
The Islanders were fortunate to have a two-goal lead after the first period. Frans Nielsen was in the right place twice. He beat Ryan Miller at 1:39 after Michael Grabner got a giveaway from Sabres defenseman Mike Weber. Nielsen netted another one after Miller's poke-check slid right out to him just off the bench at 17:17.
Nielsen also set up Josh Bailey's goal at 16:00, just as Nino Niederreiter's penalty was expiring, and despite being outshot 17-9 and outhustled in many areas, the Isles held the lead.
"We definitely didn't play well in the first," Nielsen said. "We were lucky to have the lead."
After a much better defensive second period, the Isles' lone breakdown turned into a goal. Nielsen didn't pick up trailer Derek Roy on a Sabres rush, and his screened shot beat Al Montoya (34 saves) with 1:19 left in the second. Montoya was named the third star of the game.
The third period was going to be a struggle even before Hamonic took a puck that tipped off Nielsen's stick and caught him flush, leaving a trail of blood right in front of Montoya's crease. John Tavares, held scoreless for a second straight game, and his line got mixed up off a turnover and Paul Gaustad beat Montoya with 8:14 left to tie it.
The Isles had a power play in overtime and fired away, with nine shots on Miller, but he held firm. Brad Boyes and Jason Pominville beat Montoya in the shootout and Miller stopped P.A. Parenteau and Nielsen, moving the Sabres into a tie with the Islanders for 12th, 10 points out of eighth.
"We chased the puck tonight," coach Jack Capuano said. "They broke us down and grinded it out. We're in a situation where we can't let points slip away."
Notes & quotes: Hamonic was taken to Long Island Jewish Hospital as a precaution. There was no word on his status after the game . . . D Milan Jurcina sat out with an elbow laceration suffered in Friday's win in Ottawa. Dylan Reese played in his place. F Brian Rolston was a healthy scratch.