The New York Islanders had a lead in this game. They even had their fair share of controlling stretches and, in fact, while up 2-1 they had a great shift that coulda-woulda-shoulda extended the lead to 3-1. Shots were 20-19 through two periods.
But then every single weakness they've displayed this season rose to the surface at once: Back-breaking third-period goals against, insane carom own goals, an inability to fight through some poor officiating moments, and goaltending failure to stop pucks to help them ride out the storm.
The details aren't all that important: If you're a doomsday prepper fan, they collapsed in the third period and the own goals were somehow the coach's fault. If you're a fatalist, then the hockey gods and referees conspired against the Isles once again. If you're a moderately sober realist, the Islanders played one of the East's better teams well in stretches but not long enough to win, ultimately suffering self-inflicted wounds enabled by their own weaknesses that allow too little margin for error.
The toughest part, loss aside, may have been seeing Kevin Poulin perform no better than Evgeni Nabokov on his worst days. Old or young, ill or injury-ravaged, the Islanders continue to have goaltender questions, and it's not clear where the answers will come from.
Notes: The Good
Among the nice things: The John Tavares equalizer that made it 1-1. Lubomir Visnovsky erred with a desperate lunge at the Canadiens blueline, leading to a 2-on-1. But Thomas Hickey swept excellently to break it up, and Matt Moulson's backchecking allowed him to pick up the puck in his own zone and feed Tavares on the breakout. As Tavares looked to pass, Brad Boyes and Lubomir Visnovsky each provided great decoys. The latter drew Francis Bouillon out enough to provide Tavares space to get the jazz hands going and firmly shoot through Carey Price. Fun end-to-end sequence.
Those same four players, as well as Brad Boyes, made sweet music moving the puck quickly on the go-ahead goal halfway through the second period. Visnovsky picked up the gold, showing a great nose for the net.
Thirty games into the season, let us just sit back and admire the skill on the Islanders powerplay. It's impressive, and they're a joy to watch even when a goal doesn't result. Came up empty, 0-for-4 tonight, but moved the puck well and adjusted nicely to each Canadiens PK push.
Michael Grabner returned, looking healthy. He played 12:48, including 2:57 on the PK.
Notes: The Bad
To elaborate, Poulin just did not look good on the first and second goals. Each slipped under his five hole on the Canadiens powerplay, without significant screen. Should we give him leeway for rust after sitting so long? Or for the number of times he suffered collisions tonight -- both from Habs players and his own teammates? Five goals on 29 shots is pretty tough.
Unfathomable if the team or its broadcasters will pin this on the first line again. (They were even in +/- by the way, and they created both goals for. They deserve blame for the goal against early in the third, but not for failing to generate offense.)
The stretch where we can complain about the officiating: A few minutes after Visnovsky's go-ahead goal, the penalty call on Michael Grabner on the backcheck was pretty bad. A guy does everything he can to keep pace and let the officials know he's not holding or reaching in, but the opponent goes down easy and Grabner heads to the box. Of course, Kevin Poulin's five hole was worse. A P.K. Subban knuckler from the point beat him to make it 2-2...
...Then in the third, after the Canadiens took a first-minute (early again) lead after an Islanders turnover, the Isles might have gotten a chance to equalize with their powerplay ... if the officials had bothered to notice the Canadiens' sixth skater handling the puck along the boards. To add insult, the worst call of all was Keith Aucoin getting dinged, emphatically by an overzealous man in stripes, for "embellishing" after he was knocked off balance in a goalmouth post-whistle scrum. There's no need to call anything there, on either team. But someone wanted to prove a point. That someone is bad at his job, and has probably never observed a player trying to stay upright while losing his balance.
It's been a tough couple of games for the Islanders as far as notable officiating and war room rulings go, but of course the Islanders cracked under adversity rather than fight through it. (And before we get too paranoid, every team faces misfortune, usually every game.) The game was sealed by two Brendan Gallagher goals, neither of which were "his" exactly. Mark Streit, Poulin (and Visnovsky on a poor play at his blueline) each did their part to deflect pucks into the Isles net. A mix of bad luck made possible by poor play.
It's overly simplistic to do the "they're always bad in X period" thing. Every year, average or mediocre teams will through random chance compile an imbalance of goals in one period or another. They seldom distribute their goal difference evenly. If it's the first period, "they start poorly." If it's the second period, "they lay off to much after the intermission" and so on...
...that said, in 30 games the Islanders have now given up 45 third-period goals, by far the worst in the league. Even removing their seven empty net goals against, they'd still have the worst third-period total by a pair. Some would call that a tendency to collapse or play too safe, but you also have to ask whether teams adjust accordingly by the second intermission.
Of course, then you have results like Tuesday night and tonight, where the goals against come from errors and caroms that can happen in any period, but are all the more painful and noticeable when they come in the final frame. Symptoms of a team that may be inching upward from years past, but still has a ways to go.
So yes, a four-game homestand has begun with two worst-case results, and the Islanders play the steamrolling Penguins tomorrow night. Gonna need a better effort.