The Islanders did almost everything better on Monday against the Penguins than they had two nights previously. They were physical. They were active in the offensive zone. They got superb goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and limited the high-danger chances.
But that all came after spotting their opponent a multi-goal lead for the third straight game as they played from behind in all four games of this road trip.
So the Penguins tied the Islanders for second place in the East Division by holding on for a 2-1 win in front of 2,800 at PPG Paints Arena in a possible playoff preview. It left the Islanders an unsatisfactory 2-4-2 in the now-concluded season series between the teams.
"I didn’t think they had anything after the first period," coach Barry Trotz said. "They had 10 or 11 chances, for my count, and they had seven in the first period. I thought we did a pretty good job. But we fell short. That’s the bottom line."
The Islanders (22-10-4) and Penguins (23-11-2), who are on a 12-3-1 run, both trail the first-place Capitals by two points in the East, with Washington having played two fewer games.
The Islanders outhit the Penguins 52-23 and got 20 saves from Varlamov. The Penguins’ Casey DeSmith made 19 saves — several from point-blank range — after Tristan Jarry, who stopped all five shots he faced in the first period, exited with an upper-body injury.
"The second and third, I think we were really on our game and had a lot of opportunities," said Matt Martin, who tipped Mathew Barzal’s feed to the net for a power-play goal at 9:22 of the second period to bring the Islanders within 2-1.
"But that’s four in a row now where we’ve been chasing the game after the first," Martin added. "You’re not going to have a whole lot of success that way, so we’ve got to get off to a better start."
The Islanders spotted the Penguins a five-goal lead in Saturday night’s 6-3 loss, which was marked by ill-timed penalties, loose defensive play and subpar goaltending as rookie Ilya Sorokin was pulled. The Islanders rallied for a 4-3 overtime win in Boston on Thursday after trailing 2-0 through one period. They also rallied for a 2-1 overtime win in Philadelphia a week ago Monday.
"We can’t let that carry on," defenseman Ryan Pulock said. "We need to fix that now. It’s tough when you’re playing tight teams like that and you give them two right away. It’s tough to come back. We need to focus on that next game and making sure we’re ready and having a better first period."
There hasn’t been one common cause for the Islanders’ slow starts, other than opponents capitalizing on mistakes.
In this loss, Anthony Angello scored a power-play goal at 4:24 of the first period after Ross Johnston, in his first shift since Jan. 26, slashed Jared McCann’s stick. Then, with the teams skating four-on-four, defenseman John Marino caught the Islanders on a sloppy change of players and fed McCann for a 2-0 lead at 18:28 of the first period.
"Just a horrible line change," Trotz said. "We had a couple of forwards that jumped off but our D jumped off as well. We changed three guys when they had possession at the red line."
It was a glaring gaffe, and the problem for the Islanders is that the margin of error is too slim when they’re playing from behind.
"As a team, we’ve got to just have a better start," defenseman Nick Leddy said. "That’s really all there is to it. I don’t see any rhyme or reason."
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