The Islanders too often were a step behind on Saturday.
But it likely wasn’t playing games on consecutive nights or for the fourth time in six days that was the culprit. The competition got tougher and the Islanders — again — were not at their best against one of the NHL’s better teams.
The Islanders had a three-game winning streak snapped as they fell to the Maple Leafs, 3-1, at UBS Arena after opening this seven-game homestand with a defensively dominant 4-0 victory over the Western Conference-worst Coyotes on Friday.
"They’re a good hockey team," coach Barry Trotz said. "They defend really quite well and we weren’t able to generate enough. But I thought we gave them two gifts. And they’re going to capitalize on that if you make mistakes."
Semyon Varlamov made 20 saves for the Islanders (14-14-6), who went 0-for-3 on the power play with four shots. But it was the "freebies," as Trotz also called them, that hurt. The Islanders allowed a shorthanded goal after killing off two early man-advantage chances for the Maple Leafs and then gave up a goal in the final second of the first period.
The Islanders fell to 2-10-3 against teams currently holding playoff spots in the Eastern and Western Conferences. Worse, they have been outscored 46-21 in those games.
So while there is optimism about the team’s recent play — they are 7-2-1 at home since Dec. 11 — the Islanders cannot expect to truly launch themselves back into the playoff hunt without performing better against tougher competition.
"We match up against who we see on the schedule that night," said Zach Parise, who scored his second goal of the season by pushing the puck up ice and lifting a backhander at the crease to tie it at 1 with 59.2 seconds left in the first period. "We’ll learn from tonight’s loss and get ready for our next game. That’s our mentality. I don’t think anyone in the room knows that record, that stat. But we’re going to be ready for our next game, most importantly."
The loss knocked the Islanders back to seventh place in the Metropolitan Division a day after they leapfrogged from last to sixth. They next face the eighth-place Flyers on Tuesday night after sweeping a home-and-home series from Philadelphia this past Monday and Tuesday.
The Islanders limited the Maple Leafs’ NHL-leading power play to two shots, then allowed Mitch Marner’s shorthanded goal at 13:25 of the first period on their first power play. Marner got up ice off a turnover and slid the puck underneath Varlamov.
"The turnover, that was a pre-scout," Trotz said. "We knew they were jumping it."
The Maple Leafs took a 2-1 lead when Pierre Engvall slid the puck through Varlamov with four-tenths of a second left in the first period as the Islanders seemed to stop skating in anticipation of the buzzer.
"That one took some steam out of us," Trotz said.
"You never want to give up a goal at any point," Casey Cizikas said. "We still had a lot of time to get ourselves back in the game. That’s our mentality here. It doesn’t matter what happens. You’re ready for the next shift."
The Islanders outshot the Maple Leafs 15-4 in the third period, but by then, it was 3-1. William Nylander fed defenseman Morgan Rielly cross ice for a one-timer from the right circle at 9:42 of the second period with the Islanders struggling defensively in their zone.
Petr Mrazek stopped 25 shots for the Maple Leafs (25-10-3), who had not played since a 6-3 road loss to the Rangers on Wednesday.