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The Islanders Came Up Small

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: Anders Lee #27 of the New York Islanders leaves the ice after obtaining an injury during a game against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on April 10, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images)
John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images

I am largely agnostic about the wild card race in the East. The Panthers, on a hot streak after a disappointing year, are probably the best of the bunch. The Sabres are fun and on the come-up. The Crosby/Malkin Penguins are in "one last ride" territory. The Islanders—well, I'm sure somebody somewhere enjoys watching the Islanders. But realistically, these teams are competing to see who will be turned into a smear on a windshield in the first round, and while it's nice to have some drama in the last week of the regular season, the drama is mostly about what color those smears will be. But maybe not! Stranger things have happened. So what you'd want to see from a potential wild card down the stretch is just ... fight. The ability to take care of business in these last couple games where the prize is asymmetrical, against opponents that are either trying to get healthy for their own playoff runs or well out of it.

The Islanders simply had to win their last two to guarantee themselves a spot in the world to come (the playoffs). They couldn't have asked for a riper opponent in Monday's penultimate tilt. The Washington Capitals have already made their summer plans, and entered Monday a shadow of themselves. They were without Alexander Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha, Nic Dowd, and Trevor van Riemsdyk, and because of salary cap issues, couldn't even call up an 18th skater to fill out their lineup. This was a team playing out the string, against the Islanders, facing as much of a must-win game as you can have in a non-elimination game.

It took 36 seconds for this to happen:

It took another 27 seconds for this:

By the time the first period had ended, thanks to some sloppy defense and subpar play from Ilya Sorokin, it was 3-0 Caps. "Some errors were made," is how head coach Lane Lambert put it. There was no coming back from it; the game ended 5-2, and the Islanders are no longer in control of their own destiny.

From one side, this is a testament to how professional athletes never mail it in, not even the eliminated, shorthanded Caps. From the other side, it's a baffling, crushing, perhaps telling failure to rise to the moment. So what happened? The Isles didn't have many answers. “Everyone knew the importance. I don’t know what exactly caused the start," Brock Nelson mused. "It's tough to explain," said Lambert. When asked if the team showed enough intensity at puck drop, Lambert deadpanned, "Apparently not."

The Panthers lost in overtime to the Leafs, but gained a point that keeps them in the driver's seat for the first wild card (thus avoiding the juggernaut Bruins). The Sabres refuse to die, nabbing a feisty shootout win over the Rangers, though theirs remains the longest of shots. The Penguins were idle, but with two games remaining can clinch a spot by winning out, and those two games are against the woeful Blackhawks and Blue Jackets. The Islanders are just 5-4-1 in their last 10, losing ground to all three of their competitors and looking like no one's idea of a postseason Cinderella. All four are still technically alive, but the Isles might've squandered their season in 63 seconds. You can't take your foot off the pedal for even a minute.

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