UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The early morning weekend wake-up hadn’t been too kind to the Washington Capitals, who lost five of the seven games scheduled on or before 1 p.m. during the regular season. Chalk it up to a loss of focus, a lack of routine or a little of both, but the Capitals knew Sunday the scheduling would not be in their favor, if nothing else.
But there was something else — an opponent, the New York Islanders, who were returning home to prolong the farewell of their dilapidated Nassau Coliseum. All season long, passionate crowds had flocked to the old barn to say goodbye and pay respects, and the desire to keep the doors propped open has continued to provide fuel for a team that had greatly outplayed its preseason prognostications.
When those circumstances collided on Sunday in Game 3, the result seemed utterly predictable. The Capitals fell, 2-1, to the Islanders, sleepwalking through much of the afternoon before stretching out the inevitable by pushing the game to overtime.
“We’d like to get some offensive push, some urgency in that department, a little bit sooner in the game,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
John Tavares, the Islanders’ dependable captain, didn’t drag it out much longer than he needed to. He sounded the alarm just 15 seconds into the extra frame, jamming the puck past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby from an angle that seemed nearly impossible to measure.
Otherwise, Holtby had played brilliantly, returning after an illness that settled in during Game 1 on Wednesday and reduced him to a spectator for Game 2 on Friday. Outside of the winner and a slip-up in the second period, when a puck glanced off Kyle Okposo and into the net, Holtby denied everything that came at him, turning away 40 shots — more than he had in any game during the regular season.
That a player who did not have the physical strength to get through a game a day and a half earlier could play so fiercely reflected poorly on his teammates, who ambled through the playoff opener as well. Holtby had nine saves in the first five minutes and contributed a number of gems, including a sequence where he stopped Tyler Kennedy and then denied a jam by Anders Lee midway through the second period and discarded consecutive tries from Nikolay Kulemin early in the third.
The regulation goal was a slap shot from the right point by Lubomir Visnovsky that deflected off the back of Okposo’s right knee and into the net. The overtime goal was a bit more unlucky; after Tavares won the faceoff and Johnny Boychuk drilled a shot from the red line, Holtby pitched the puck to his right, allowing the Islanders to recover and Tavares to flip it from a foot in front of the goal line over a kneeling Holtby’s right leg.
“I’ve got to look if I should have played that or just taken the faceoff,” Holtby said. “I don’t know. It’s one of those things that you live and you learn. You make a split-second decision and hope it works out for the best, and it didn’t there.”
The Capitals attempted an astonishing 82 shots in their 4-3 victory in Game 2, testing Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak with 31 shots on goal. They had only five after the first period on Sunday and 13 after two periods before ramping up their activity in the third period, leading to Nicklas Backstrom’s equalizer at 13:54.
New York, conversely, peppered Holtby from the start. The Islanders had just 21 shots on goal in their loss but had 16 in the first period on Sunday, and they avoided the issues that led to their prior downfall. They were active in their own end, aided by a muted Washington forecheck, and responsible in the neutral zone.
“Today was one of our better games, for sure,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. “I thought, especially in the second period, we could have been up a few goals.”
To ward off any wariness, Capitals coach Barry Trotz implored his players before the game to tighten up their warm-up and their preparation. The early start was a concern, as was the atmosphere; indeed, the previous two meetings between the teams at the arena this season were won by the Islanders in overtime.
Thus, after the puck squeezed past Holtby and the goaltender angrily scooped it out of the net with his stick, Trotz immediately turned his focus to the future.
“To forget this one, understand what we need to do to be successful in the next one,” Trotz said. “We know the environment. We know the opposition. … We’ll pout about it, the loss, for about an hour here, and then we’ll let it go and have the right energy and the right thoughts, the positive thoughts, going forward.”
• Zac Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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