The Metropolitan Division consists of eight teams. Entering Wednesday’s play, the separation between first and last place is a mere eight points. Since the division contains the smallest point disparity in the league, any miscues and shortcomings get magnified. Much of the New York Islanders’ first-half success came on the strength of their offensive proficiency. The defense, however, could not match that level of play in their 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars.
“Maybe some things did not go our way, but certainly we did not help ourselves the first half of the game,” Islanders captain John Tavares said. “We seemed a little sluggish, and we were trying to fight the puck a bit and just not moving it quick enough. It didn’t allow us to establish our forecheck, which is a big part of our game. We have to come out with a little more urgency and expect a certain standard.”
If the Islanders register the game’s first goal, chances are they will end up recording a victory as demonstrated by an 11-0-0 record in those situations. The Stars had other ideas and opened the scoring when Tyler Pitlick beat Ryan Pulock to a Dan Hamhuis shot that bounced off the dasher and backhanded it past Jaroslav Halak, who made his fourth consecutive start in goal.
Alexander Radulov followed with his tenth goal of the season when Brock Nelson lost control of the puck, leading to a three-on-two opportunity. Despite trailing by two goals, head coach Doug Weight believed the Isles deserved a better fate since they nearly equaled Dallas’s scoring chances.
“We should have been up 2-0 in the first period. We had a lot of chances,” Weight said. That’s really the only difference in the game. It’s frustrating. We all want to get on a roll again. It was a sluggish game, but it was a sluggish game by both teams. We did plenty enough to win the game in my opinion. You are going to lose some of those games, and you have to give them (the Stars) credit. I’m just looking at the entire picture.”
While the Islanders battled for scoring chances, it was the Stars who continued to convert and built an insurmountable lead. Roughly a minute into the second period, Remi Elie pounced on a rebound in the slot that Halak couldn’t corral, as the Stars’ speed and passing became too difficult for the Isles to overcome.
When captain Jamie Benn added another Dallas goal, the Isles opted to pull Halak after surrendering four goals on 20 shot attempts in favor of Thomas Greiss, who gave up Pitlick’s second goal of the game in the third period.
“The game takes on its own identity. There were a lot of bounces of pucks in the neutral zone and sloppy play. I’m not saying Jaro was the single cause for the loss,” Weight said. “It was one of those games that I wouldn’t say is a Rembrandt, but we were a part of it, and I felt we generated enough to win the game, and that’s just how I see it.”
Andres Lee collected two third period goals with the first line accounting for all the Islanders’ offensive production. In 31 games, Lee sits third in the league with 19 goals, only trailing Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead. The Islanders began stabilizing their play with the puck in the third period and outshot the Stars by a 14-3 margin. The efforts never wavered in spite of the outcome and anticipated better consistency in all facets of the game.
“The Stars came out flying tonight. We ended up down two goals in the first period, and we thought we were fine,” Lee said. The next thing you know, you are down 4-0, and you are in a big hole that’s hard to climb out of. The 5-2 loss looks a lot worse than it really was, but they just capitalized on their opportunities. You have to give (Kari) Lehtonen credit. He played a great game. He was seeing the puck and controlling the rebounds.”
Lehtonen stopped 32 out of a possible 34 shots on a historic night where he earned his 300th career victory. The former Atlanta Thrasher became the 33rd goaltender in NHL history to record at least 300 wins and tied Cam Ward and Tomas Vokoun on the all-time list. Lehtonen kept the Islanders off balance and contributed a quality outing backing up Ben Bishop.
“It was fun and nice to get (the 300th win) on my first try,” Lehtonen said. “It was obviously in the back of my head, and it was a nice feeling. We started off really well and had good chances. It was nice to play the last couple of games and get good results. It makes me believe in my play and what I’m doing.”
The Islanders will have a short turnaround on Thursday as they travel to Nationwide Arena to face the division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets. The quick trip provides the Isles with a chance to overcome the loss to Dallas and correct any difficulties quickly. Following their trip to Columbus, the Islanders will return home for a four-game stretch beginning on Saturday against the Los Angeles Kings.
“The good thing this year is that we got off to a good start and last year we didn’t, and it took us a long time to find things,” Tavares said. “There is a confidence that’s there. It’s about making sure we don’t stray away from it because we want to make plays and create opportunities. When we play a lot of games in a short period of time, we have to utilize everybody in the lineup.”