BUFFALO – They can’t all be pristine performances with airtight goaltending. But because the Islanders have had way more good games than bad, they have some leeway in their playoff push.
What the Islanders can’t be is “cute,” and that’s how the players and coach Barry Trotz described their less than full effort in Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss to the Sabres at KeyBank Center to snap a three-game winning streak.
“We just weren’t really sharp,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “There were times where we were trying to get fancy and make plays at the blue line. We weren’t playing the way we need to play. When we’re successful, we play a pretty simple game, and we got away from that.”
The Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders (33-17-6), still 19-5-2 since Dec. 5, conclude this two-game trip Thursday night at Columbus. The third-place Blue Jackets beat the visiting Capitals, 3-0, Tuesday night to extend their winning streak to four games as they moved within five points of the Islanders. The second-place Capitals are three points back.
“For two periods we were kind of a little bit too cute and trying to make that extra play and not getting it in when we got a chance,” left wing Matt Martin said. “We’ve got a good opportunity to nip it in the bud and get a win on Thursday against a Columbus team that’s not too far behind us.”
“We had a lot of passengers today,” Trotz added. “Usually, we have probably 90 percent of our lineup going. Today, we probably had 70 percent. Or maybe even less. That’s not good enough.”
Robin Lehner made 19 saves in his second start against his former team as the Sabres (28-21-7) improved to 3-2-1 on their seven-game homestand. They led 2-1 through two periods despite getting just 10 shots.
“It’s just a a lack of rhythm,” center Mathew Barzal said. “We just didn’t have too much zone time or puck possession. We just couldn’t really get into it and then, in the third period, we started getting the puck in a little more and holding on to it a little longer and that’s when we started feeling it.”
The Sabres’ Linus Ullmark made 24 saves, including 10 in a third period that provided crisper, more exciting hockey than the opening 40 minutes. The teams went 8:33 before the first stoppage, with Barzal generating numerous chances and Lehner getting in front of Zemgus Girgenson’s deflection from close range.
Johan Larsson gave the Sabres a crucial insurance goal at 17:35 after the puck trickled through Lehner’s pads.
Ullmark made perhaps his best save at 12:47 of the third, turning aside Cal Clutterbuck, who missed the last two games, at the crease after the right wing skated in alone from the blue line.
Jeff Skinner snapped a shot over Lehner’s shoulder from the top of the right circle for his 34th goal after Jack Eichel beat Brock Nelson on an offensive-zone draw to give the Sabres a 1-0 lead at 16:25 of a sleepy first period.
But Clutterbuck forced a turnover from defenseman Rasmus Ritsolainen, leading to Casey Cizikas' tying goal with 22.4 seconds left in the first period. Jason Pominville converted Eichel’s backhanded feed to the crease to make it 2-1 at 6:49 of the second.
The Islanders trailed after two periods for only the 15th time.
“Usually, we’re getting pucks in and being physical and really frustrating other teams, and tonight we didn’t do that much for two periods,” Martin said. “We were better in the third but it’s too little, too late.”