The Islanders got the much-improved start they needed. And really, they played the game they needed coming off a rough four-game road trip. All that was missing were the two points.
That’s going to happen sometimes in hockey, and one was a consolation in this shootout loss. But this was not a good night to settle, not with the Islanders opening a pivotal five-game homestand and needing a win far more than the consolation prize of a point and improved play. They’ll have to settle with that, though, as they reckon with a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Stars on Tuesday night at UBS Arena after Jason Robertson’s shootout winner.
After playing two straight disastrous games in Edmonton and Calgary to finish the trip, the Islanders at times on Tuesday displayed the kind of hockey that makes you think they just might be a tough out in the playoffs. If they can get that far.
They can’t guarantee themselves that fate in the midst of a January homestand, not with the race so tight in the Eastern Conference between themselves, the Penguins, the Sabres, the Capitals and the Rangers. But they certainly can watch their hopes slide away if things go the wrong direction.
All year, the Islanders have played well when faced with the toughest competition, and that was the case against Dallas, which came into the match atop the Central Division. The thing is, though, a high-end team is more apt to take advantage of mistakes, and that’s what the Stars did.
The fateful moment for the Islanders came at the end of a tight second period in which both teams failed to convert chances. Casey Cizikas’ go-ahead goal got wiped off the board after Anthony Beauvillier got whistled for offside while coming off the ice, nullifying a 2-1 lead.
That ended up being the sort of costly moment the Islanders can ill afford on a night that might otherwise have been positive.
After 20 more scoreless minutes led to overtime in which the Isles failed to secure the extra point, it was hard not to go back and think of that.
This night was much more positive than any of their three losses on the road. The Islanders forechecked well, played good possession hockey and cleared their own zone more easily. They even scored a rare power-play goal. But none of that mattered in the end.
Even when the Stars struck first, with Jason Robertson finishing off a tic-tac-toe sequence from Joe Pavelski and Tyler Seguin 3:42 into the game, the Isles were unshaken. Unlike during messy first periods in Edmonton and Calgary, they got up off the mat and kept right at it.
Quickly, it paid off, as Anders Lee redirected Brock Nelson’s pass into the net for a power-play goal at 13:39 of the first.
Still, this is the kind of game they’ll have to play over the next 18 days leading into the All-Star break again and again. Three of their next four games are against teams that entered Tuesday in playoff positions. Then it’s off to Buffalo for a pivotal match against the Sabres, and back home to face the Hurricanes, who shut them down at UBS Arena a month ago.
It is as massive a stretch of games as you could ask for barely halfway into the season, with the Islanders on a knife’s edge in the playoff race and looking to crawl back from the cliff.
More often than not, a game like Tuesday’s will end in two points. This time, though, the Islanders were left with their third straight loss, and fourth in five.
And that means this time, it wasn’t good enough.