The Islanders still competed hard, still played with emotion on the night after John Tavares’ return.
But they couldn’t hold a third-period lead, and the Washington Capitals earned a 3-1 victory before a sellout crowd of 13,917 at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum to pull even with the Islanders at 81 points atop the Metropolitan Division.
“We’ve got to finish games out,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “We started off pretty well. We were physical, getting in on them. But we’ve got to finish those games out. We let two points slip away. We’ve got to have a better third.”
The Islanders (37-20-7) have a game in hand on the Capitals (37-21-7) and thus maintain first place in the division. The teams will finish the regular season at Washington on April 6 in a game that could decide the division title.
Thursday night’s 6-1 win over the Maple Leafs and Tavares was instantly memorable for its emotionally charged atmosphere. That capacity crowd screamed itself hoarse to express its extreme displeasure with the former captain’s decision to leave via free agency and return home to Toronto. But Friday night’s game didn’t go as well for the Islanders or their fans.
“I don’t think there was a letdown,” Anders Lee said after the Islanders fell to 9-1-1 in the second game of back-to-back sets. “I thought we played a pretty solid game. The third wasn’t great. We were all jacked up and ready to go and we knew how important this game was and where we both stand in the Metro.”
Thomas Greiss, making his first start in five games, stopped 26 shots for the Islanders. Braden Holtby made 20 saves for the Capitals, who have won three straight and five of six.
The Capitals tied the score at 1-1 at 3:26 of the third period as Jakub Vrana connected from low in the slot. Alex Ovechkin then swatted a puck out of the air near the crease that went in off Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s raised stick for a power-play goal and a 2-1 Washington lead at 4:34.
Lee had been called for interference against Nicklas Backstrom off a defensive-zone faceoff at 4:21.
T.J. Oshie was credited with an empty-net goal at 18:32 on a puck knocked in by the Islanders’ Josh Bailey.
“My penalty and the power- play goal by them changed things around,” said Lee, who declined to comment when asked if he thought Backstrom went down too easily. “Then we were chasing and they’re good at playing defense.”
The Islanders took a 1-0 lead at 2:43 of the first period. Tom Kuhnhackl — playing on the third line as Andrew Ladd was a healthy scratch after coming off long-term injured reserve on Tuesday — intercepted an outlet pass in the neutral zone and glided in alone to lift a backhander past Holtby.
Linemate Leo Komarov appeared to be offside as he came to tag up at the blue line, and even Kuhnhackl thought the play would be waved off. But the Capitals rightfully didn’t challenge because Kuhnhackl did not touch the puck inside the offensive zone until Komarov did tag up, which made the play legal. It was Kuhnhackl’s fourth goal and first in 20 games.
The Islanders nearly had a second breakaway goal in the first period, but Mathew Barzal’s chance ricocheted off the post at 12:20. Brock Nelson also hit the far post on his own rebound from the right at 16:53 of the third period.
Fourth-line left wing Matt Martin missed the game with an upper-body injury as Ross Johnston dressed for the first time since Jan. 12.