BUFFALO — Of course, everything in the Islanders’ universe revolves around John Tavares. The offense, the spirit, the identity, the mojo, the future. This time it was the blame, at least as far as he was concerned.
Tavares dejectedly pointed the finger at himself for allowing the Sabres’ Sam Reinhart to score with 4:14 left, spoiling an inspired comeback from a three-goal deficit and missing a golden opportunity to pick up two points or at least one. As it was, the Islanders lost on Thursday to the Eastern Conference’s last-place team, 4-3.
“They just capitalized more on their opportunities than we did. We had some chances, we tied it up. Just a blown coverage by me in our own zone, and it led to a goal-against that obviously decided the game,” Tavares said.
Ross Johnston and Anders Lee had scored in the third period to bring the Islanders all the way back. The comeback, and the success the Islanders had in overcoming their own greatest weakness — limiting the Sabres to 22 shots — made the result that much tougher to take.
“Very tough, just unfortunate,” Tavares said. “Overall a pretty decent hockey game. We got a big goal from Johnny and Anders. Just a blown coverage in our own zone and it cost us.”
Doug Weight did not think it was Tavares’ fault at all. “What happened is [Jack] Eichel tried to throw it to the net and it hits off a skate, so John switches his stick position and it goes right by him. It was a ping-pong ball bouncing around,” the coach said.
“Nothing was missing,” Weight said. “We played a great game.”
If anything, Tavares was the one who gave the Islanders a pulse. Having come out of the penalty box with his team down 3-0 more than halfway through the second, he was knocked to the ice by Marco Scardella but got right up, beat Scardella to the edge of the crease and knocked the puck past Robin Lehner for his 28th goal of the season.
Having allowed 40 or more shots repeatedly, the Isles were determined to reduce that number. They gave up only two in the first 13 minutes, 21 seconds — but both went in the net.
Eichel fired the puck from the right circle off a goalpost, past Jaroslav Halak at 7:41. Evan Rodrigues took a hard carom off the back wall and converted at 13:21. Ryan O’Reilly tipped in Rasmus Risstolainen’s power-play blast at 7:18 of the second to make it 3-0.
“They got a couple bounces. Nice shot by Eichel, right off the pipe. Kind of a lucky bounce on the second one and all of a sudden it’s 2-0,” Lee said. “You can’t let that affect you the rest of the night. Honestly, we clearly didn’t. We were able to battle and tie the game up.”
Johnston, a fourth-liner, made it close and Lee scored his 28th to tie it. The night suddenly had the makings of something special for a team scrambling for playoff position. “When you battle back and you leave with zero points, it’s frustrating,” Lee said. “This one doesn’t sit well at all.”
It sat especially hard with the captain. Tavares, who waited for reporters to arrive so he could shoulder the responsibility, said, “Very tough, just unfortunate. We needed the two points and we didn’t get them.”