It was only one point, but it had to feel like two.
The Islanders were on their way to another frustrating regulation loss to the Caps on Thursday when Frans Nielsen corralled a bouncing puck and snuck a shot by Braden Holtby with 1:44 to play, sending the game to overtime.
There was no satisfying ending there, with Justin Williams snapping one through a screen and past Thomas Greiss with 43.2 seconds left in overtime. But even a 3-2 loss had to feel like some sort of accomplishment against Holtby and Alex Ovechkin, whose two goals in a 1:27 span early in the second turned the game around.
“You always want the two points, so it’s disappointing, but this time of year you have to be happy with the one point,” said Greiss, who made 32 saves.
John Tavares had given the Isles a 1-0 lead after the first period with his 22nd goal of the season, a nifty outside-in move past Caps defenseman Nate Schmidt followed by a quick wrist shot past Holtby at 15:41 of the first.
It was an opening period that picked up where some of the nastiness of last spring’s playoff series left off. Tom Wilson, public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of Islanders fans (and a few players), raced down off the opening faceoff and crunched Thomas Hickey into the end boards, sending Hickey down to one knee.
Hickey had delivered an elbow to Wilson’s face two weeks ago, when the teams played a tight, physical game in Washington that Ovechkin won with just under three minutes to play.
Wilson and Hickey jousted much of the night. Travis Hamonic and Williams had a slash-fest and chatted afterwards later in the game. It was a high-intensity affair, not just because of the opponent but because of the tightness of the standings — the Islanders needed to be at their best to keep pace ahead of the Penguins and behind the Rangers, both winners on Thursday.
Ovechkin made that difficult with his 87-second outburst. He easily tucked one behind Greiss at 1:27 after a deceptive feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov from behind the Isles net to make it 1-1. On a power play at 2:52, Ovechkin wired one past Greiss for his 37th of the season and 30th in 40 career games against the Islanders.
The remainder of the second period was a grind as the swift-skating Caps wore down the Islanders, outshooting the home side 14-4 in the middle period. The Isles killed off a 58-second five on three when Greiss sent the puck over the glass and the Islanders never could get their footing.
“It’s just not acceptable the way we played out there,” Nielsen said. “We have to be harder to play against.”
Holtby, who had to make only 20 saves, wasn’t very busy in the third, either, needing only to grab Nick Leddy’s wrist shot with 12:38 to go as seemingly the last good chance for the Isles.
But they tied it on an innocent-looking play. Hamonic kept the puck in at the Caps line as Greiss prepared to head off for an extra attacker; the puck bounced off a body in front to Nielsen along the goal line to Holtby’s left and Nielsen snuck one by the goaltender to send the sellout Barclays Center crowd into a frenzy.
The overtime was a lopsided affair, though. Ovechkin clanged one off the post from long range a couple minutes before Williams’ shot found its way through a crowd and past Greiss to take a little air out of the comeback.
“It was a good point,” Jack Capuano said. “We made it tough on ourselves in the second with all the penalties, we had no rhythm. But the PK did a good job, our goaltender made some big saves and Fransy came up big at the end.”