Missing their two most important players, the Washington Capitals hardly resembled the team that dominated the season's first half in their return from the All-Star break.
With Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby back in the fold, the Eastern Conference leaders attempt to avert a season-high third straight loss Thursday night against the visiting New York Islanders.
Ovechkin was ineligible to play Tuesday against Florida after dropping out of the All-Star game to rest a lower-body injury, while Holtby was given the night off after participating in this past weekend's festivities in Nashville. Both were missed as the Capitals fell behind early in a 5-2 defeat to the Atlantic Division-leading Panthers that gave them only their second losing streak this season.
Philipp Grubauer allowed four consecutive goals over the first 35:10 in Holtby's place, while Washington's league-leading power play went 0 for 8 to negate a 38-19 shot advantage.
“Everything just kind of went in the wrong direction for us,” forward Justin Williams said. “We didn't score on the (two) five-on-threes and they scored on their first power play. That's the ups and downs of the hockey game.”
Holtby is seeking a bounce-back of his own after being dealt his first home loss since Oct. 28 in a 4-3 overtime defeat to Philadelphia on Jan. 27. Holtby, who had won 13 consecutive decisions at the Verizon Center, posted a 3.88 goals-against average in four outings prior to the break.
Holtby did make 34 saves in a 4-1 win at New York (26-16-6) on Jan. 7 and is 8-1-2 with a 2.11 GAA in 11 regular-season starts against the Islanders. He's recorded a 1.68 GAA in winning four straight at home in the series.
The Islanders have been producing offensively of late, however, with 21 goals in a 4-1-1 stretch. Brock Nelson has six of his team-leading 20 over that span after scoring the tie-breaking goal late in the second period of Tuesday's 5-3 victory over Minnesota.
Frans Nielsen and John Tavares scored early in the third to give New York a 5-2 lead and support Jean-Francois Berube's 40 saves in the rookie's first NHL win.
''I thought we played a pretty good game,'' coach Jack Capuano said ''My philosophy is never to sit back. We're in attack mode. (Tuesday) was a prime example of how we need to play. We didn't play safe.''
Washington, first in NHL at 3.29 goals per game, totaled 36 in its final nine before the break. Ovechkin, tied for second in the league with 28 goals, has seven over his past eight games while Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky have four apiece in the past three contests.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ovechkin's All-Star Game replacement, has recorded 10 assists in a four-game point streak after registering two against Florida.
Jaroslav Halak will return to the net for New York after receiving some additional time to prepare for Washington's potent attack. He's posted a 3.25 GAA in his last four starts in the series, stopping 34 of 37 shots Jan. 7.
The Caps have gone 4-0-2 in the last six matchups.