The New York Islanders fell to the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum Saturday night, a loss in which mental mistakes once again proved to be the home team’s undoing. The loss dropped the Isles to 14-22-7 (35 points) on the year, and ended their season-high three-game winning streak.
Not only is the team’s winning streak over, but the good will the Islanders had built up with their fans after wins over the Minnesota Wild, the Boston Bruins, and the Chicago Blackhawks seems to have disappeared.
And it only took 57 seconds.
Goals by Jordan Staal and Brett Sutter at 13:12 and 14:09 of the second period gave the Hurricanes a 3-1 lead and took the life out of the Islanders and the Coliseum crowd. Thomas Vanek’s tip-in goal at 19:35 made things interesting late in the third period, but it was of no consequence in the end.
“In the third, we showed what can happen when we work,” said Andrew MacDonald. “It was just too little too late at that point.”
MacDonald’s turnover behind the Islanders’ net in the second period led directly to Manny Malhotra’s goal that opened the scoring. MacDonald admitted to thinking the play was going to be whistled for icing, but took responsibility for misplaying the puck and costing his team.
“I just tried to get it off the wall and it rolled a little bit. I ended up putting it right on his stick and then he threw it right in front. That’s on me,” he said.
MacDonald returned to the locker room after the game of his own accord—having not been required by the team to do so—after reporters had spoken with the other players made available to the media. To his credit, he stood and answered every question posed to him.
The Isles should have in no way been mistaken for a playoff team after coming from behind to win on the road against the Wild and the Bruins, or after beating the Blackhawks in overtime. But, it felt like the fans were once again rallying around their team during those games as the players showed the type of fight and desperation that characterized their late-season push in April 2013.
Unfortunately for Islanders and their fans, the mental mistakes and lackadaisical play that have been the team’s calling cards for most of the season were on full display Saturday against the Hurricanes.
(As a side note, the Islanders are now 4-10-2 in their last 16 games against Carolina. Salt, meet wound.)
“We always feel like we play pretty well against [Carolina] but we always come out with a loss,” said Matt Martin. “We just have mental lapses that end up costing us.”
Those mental lapses have been all too familiar to anyone who’s watched the Islanders play this season. The third goal by the Hurricanes was another example of a team not playing until the whistle; a no-call on a potential offside play meant Staal was able to walk into the offensive zone untouched and score on a pass to the slot from Patrick Dwyer.
“We dug ourselves a hole and we had a lot of chances ourselves and we didn’t seem to capitalize on them,” said John Tavares, sounding defeated for the umpteenth time after watching his team fail to play a complete game.
“We have to be better, full 60 minutes. Giving up chances like that are hurting us,” said Tavares. “We can’t ask Nabby to bail us out every time.”
And while Evgeni Nabokov has been stellar since returning from the groin injury that sidelined him for a month, Tavares is correct: relying on their netminder to stop every shot he faces isn’t a sound strategy.
As currently constructed, the Islanders are a team that earns its victories on the strength of hard work, making life difficult for opposing teams, and limiting their own mistakes. To date, those three categories haven’t been checked off as often as head coach Jack Capuano would like to see.
Capuano’s press conferences have had the feel of a broken record this year, a theme that continued on Saturday.
“They have to line up, look at the guy next to you, make sure you have his back, I have yours,” said Capuano, referring to the mindset he wants his team to have every night. “You have to compete. This is the best league in the world.”
“If they want to move forward and they want to win hockey games, it’s the will to compete. How bad you want it—that’s what this game comes down to,” Capuano said.
For the Islanders, that will to compete has been lacking in most of their games, leading Capuano to harp on what he sees as the critical issue preventing his team from finishing—and winning—games. The Isles may not be the most talented team in the NHL, but they’re capable of winning against the league’s elite, as evidenced by their recent wins over Boston and Chicago.
To the chagrin of the players, coaches, and fans alike, the Islanders are also just as capable of losing winnable home games against the likes of Carolina.
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