SAINT PAUL, Minn. — The Islanders were one goal away from finishing their road trip in just about perfect fashion. But they couldn’t come up with a winner.
Instead, they ceded the game to the Wild, losing 2-1 in a shootout on Tuesday after Frederick Gaudreau’s winner to go home from a Central Division swing with a 1-0-1 record, still in the top wild-card spot and feeling a tad better about their playoff chances than they did leaving New York.
The Wild found the game-winner after an end-to-end final 25 minutes in which both goaltenders, but particularly Filip Gustavsson, repeatedly came up big for their teams. By that point, a game that had looked tilted to the Isles in the first and to the Wild in the second had settled into a game without much rhythm altogether. This was helter-skelter hockey, and the Islanders couldn’t find a way to make it suit them.
Despite a number of rush chances, they never quite looked settled in the offensive zone after the first, and with both netminders on their game, something had to give. In the shootout, Ilya Sorokin broke first, and Kyle Palmieri couldn’t respond for an Islanders team that is still yet to score in a shootout this season.
The Isles dominated the early goings of the match, scoring the opener when Josh Bailey put home Scott Mayfield’s rebound at 14:15 of the first. But that was the only time they would score in an entertaining first 20 minutes, and after a failed conversion on an odd-man rush, Ryan Reaves took advantage by cleaning up Jordan Greenway’s rebound to tie the game 3:45 after Bailey’s goal.
After that, the Wild quickly asserted control, taking advantage of sloppy defensive-zone play from the Islanders that resulted in long stretches where they got hemmed into their own zone. The Isles got a chance to reset things after a scoreless second period, but failed to take advantage.
They are happy to play a low-event game with Mat Barzal out, and sensibly so. But that does not mitigate the issue of poor breakouts and turnovers in their own end, both of which the Isles saw too much of on Tuesday. And when the standard for Sorokin is near perfection, he might just struggle to meet it.
A .500 road trip against two playoff teams, with a deal that sent Pierre Engvall to the Island being announced before Tuesday’s game, counts as a moderate success, but the Islanders are in a race where they may need more than that.
The math will be a problem for them until the end, with Tuesday being the 64th time they took the ice and other contenders holding as many as five games in hand. The Senators, who beat the Red Wings on back-to-back nights in Ottawa on Monday and Tuesday, look like they are turning a six-team race into a seven-team race with their own late entry.
In other words, though the Isles are still in a playoff spot, nothing is safe, even remotely so.
The next five games, starting Saturday with a match at home against Detroit, are all against other teams in the race. That is make-or-break territory for the Islanders.
As for this trip, it was not perfect, but it counts as a step forward.