Tougher competition will punish mistakes.
And that explains the Capitals’ 3-1 win on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena and the end of the Islanders’ nine-game winning streak, their 11-0-1 run and solo hold on first place in the East Division.
The damage was done by a defensive gaffe and ill-timed penalties, including one by Mathew Barzal that led to Alex Ovechkin’s milestone 718th goal and caused coach Barry Trotz to bench his top-line center to start the third period.
"We’d like to keep them off the power play a little more," Josh Bailey said. "Good players are going to find a way to capitalize. We had our looks, it could have been a different game if we found a way to score early."
The Capitals went 2-for-4 on the power play on just three man-advantage shots and won their sixth straight, 3-1. Both teams have 42 points but the Capitals have played one fewer game.
Tuesday marked the start of a stretch of 12 straight for the Islanders against the top playoff contenders in the East Division, including the Penguins, Bruins and Flyers, after playing seven of the last eight against the bottom-dwelling Devils and Sabres.
"I wish we would have come out ahead in the first," Trotz said after the Islanders outchanced the Capitals, 23-13, over the first 20 minutes. "I thought we deserved to. I thought they got really good goaltending. Their top guys scored for them, especially on the power play, and made us pay."
Semyon Varlamov, alternating starts with rookie Ilya Sorokin for the 11th straight game, stopped 19 shots for the Islanders. But Ilya Samsonov (21 saves) kept the Capitals in the game early and allowed them to find their stride as they played on back-to-back nights after a 6-0 win in Buffalo on Monday.
"Samsonov played a really good game," said rookie Oliver Wahlstrom, whose power-play goal from the slot made it 3-1 at 4:17 of the third period. "You could see he’s really good at his angles and he’s a big goalie. It was just tough to get one by him today. The Caps played a good second period."
The Capitals had pushed their lead to 3-0 on Nicklas Backstrom’s power-play goal just 28 seconds into the third period. Scott Mayfield was in the penalty box after being goaded into a roughing penalty after the second-period buzzer by Richard Panik, who refused to engage after taking a run at the defenseman.
"I don’t think I’m a dirty player, I’m not jumping guys out there," Mayfield said. "I thought it was two guys willing to drop them and when I saw that he wasn’t, I stopped right away. To be honest, I’m kind of glad I didn’t catch him with the one [punch] because I thought he was wanting to and he wasn’t. The linesman seemed like he was thinking the same way I was because he backed up."
The Capitals withstood the Islanders’ early push, then scored twice in the second period by capitalizing on some glaring mistakes.
T.J. Oshie tapped in a loose puck at the crease after Ovechkin hit the post at 10:36. Wahlstrom had lost an edge in the offensive zone — Trotz thought it was a missed tripping call — and the Capitals turned that into a three-on-one rush. But the real mistake was Austin Czarnik skating past the crease rather than trying to clear the rebound.
Ovechkin’s milestone goal came after Barzal’s frustrations led him to take an ill-advised cross-checking penalty against defenseman Nick Jensen in the offensive zone. In response, Trotz did not give Barzal a third-period shift until 8:14. Ovechkin's 718th career goal allowed him to pass Phil Esposito for sixth place all-time.
ALL-TIME NHL GOAL-SCORERS
1. Wayne Gretzky 894
2. Gordie Howe 801
3. Jaromir Jagr 766
4. Brett Hull 741
5. Marcel Dionne 731
6. Alex Ovechkin 718