Islanders are at a loss — for words and for games — after getting outplayed by Rangers

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NEW YORK — Patrick Roy said it very simply: “I saw a team that played better than us today.”

The New York Islanders were supposed to be the team that came into Sunday’s tilt against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden with higher energy. With greater desperation. With a more clearcut purpose — in this case, to win a game against a rival and back on the right side of the playoff cut line.

Instead, the visitors’ locker room was full of players, but not noise, after a 5-2 loss. The Islanders did fight back to tie this one with 6:05 left in the second period after giving up a couple of goals off bad mistakes in possession and coverage, but that fight lasted a whopping 66 seconds before the Rangers grabbed the lead back.

And then, down a goal in the third period, the Islanders got taught a lesson in how to protect a lead. The Rangers were hungrier on pucks, won most of the wall battles and pushed the lead instead of hoping to hold on. So the Islanders’ six-game win streak has now been reduced by a subsequent 0-3-1 slide, leaving them in need of help to stay alive with 15 games to go.

“It’s a good question … I don’t really know,” Mathew Barzal said when asked if the Isles’ bad habits, especially in the defensive zone, have crept back in from earlier in the season. “We should have won against Ottawa — not that we should have won (the way we played), just from a desperation standpoint. And we played a good hockey team tonight. We’re definitely giving a good effort. At this point in the season, it’s still so tight in the race, things change quickly. We rattle off the next two or three, just get one at this point, our spirits will be completely changed.”

Roy stuck with the lines that finished Saturday’s overtime loss to the Senators, swapping Barzal and Kyle Palmieri. The Brock Nelson-Bo Horvat-Palmieri line did all the damage — Horvat scored both goals — and the Anders Lee-J-G Pageau-Barzal line did not do much. Roy deserves credit for jumbling his lines to excellent effect before the six-game win streak, but now he seems to be searching hard for an answer to why his team hasn’t generated enough scoring chances the last four games.

The Islanders had just 12 high-danger scoring chances over the prior three games. On Sunday, Natural Stat Trick credited them with seven. That may be generous. None of the lines behind the Horvat line generated enough and they could barely get going with offensive zone time. The Islanders had a hard time breaking pucks out against the Rangers’ 1-3-1 structure and looked confused on their defensive-zone coverage for three of the Rangers’ goals.

Where have we seen this before? Earlier this season, when Lane Lambert’s D-zone system yielded mostly bad results on chances, shots and goals against. Roy brought in a new hybrid system, more of a man-to-man/zone combination with aggressiveness on the puck carrier. The Rangers made a mockery of that on Sunday, winning battles and finding tons of space between the hashmarks where they scored four of their goals.

Most notable in this four-game slide is the absence of impact from Noah Dobson and the Lee-Pageau combination, which looked off-kilter all game on Sunday. The Simon Holmstrom–Casey Cizikas–Pierre Engvall line had another soft game — Engvall in particular has been knocked off pucks and has played along the wall with incredible ease of late, which is what happened before Kaapo Kakko walked off the side wall between four Islanders to score the 4-2 backbreaker.

“The Rangers managed the puck much better than we did,” Roy said. “They’re very fast in transition. I thought they had more energy than us for some reason.”

The Islanders have some healthy extras — it would not be a surprise to see Robert Bortuzzo jump in for Sebastian Aho, who got bodied around often on Sunday — but extras will not change this slide. They are still in the playoff race thanks to a lack of interest by some other teams in widening the gap, so the games this week will still matter.

But the explanations for why things have gone wrong are drying up. Getting shut out in Los Angeles on Tuesday wasn’t good, but it was at least understandable against a hard-defending team. Getting shut out in Buffalo on Thursday was less understandable, but the Isles could accept that the end of a long road trip brings some odd results and play.

This weekend should have been the wake-up call. The Islanders were flat against the Senators, eking out a point. Roy said prior to Sunday’s game he hoped to see his team play as hard from the drop of the puck as it did in the final six minutes of regulation on Saturday; the Isles led 1-0 after one at the Garden but it was a bit of a mirage, as evidenced by a bad second period.

The Islanders are now 0-5-3 on the second game of their back-to-backs this season. By contrast, the Rangers are 11-1-0. The Islanders faced a team going nowhere on Saturday and didn’t match the effort; on Sunday they faced their biggest rival, a team that’s gone wire-to-wire in first, and didn’t match that effort either.

“I just felt like they shut down the game (in the third) and they played a great game,” Roy said. “That’s why they’re in first in the division.”

When your team needs to be the better team and needs the points way more, hearing your coach praise the opponent has to sting. Maybe that’s the wake-up call the Islanders need.

They’re running out of words to describe their failing efforts.

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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