CALGARY, Alberta — By the time Zach Parise scored with a minute to go in the first period Friday night, it already felt like a quest to avoid complete embarrassment for the Islanders.
It started badly. Mathew Barzal was a late scratch, after he took warmups, with a lower-body injury.
Then it got worse. Much worse.
The Islanders ended their four-game trip out west with a messy 4-1 loss to the Flames. A night after an awful first period ended their chances early at Edmonton, they were down by three goals to the Flames before they started to get their legs under them. So, after a 1-3-0 road trip in which the Islanders played two good periods of hockey out of 12, their record is 22-17-2, their best skater is injured, and they need to find their game again. Fast.
Their next game won’t be until Tuesday at home against the Stars. Coach Lane Lambert needs to spend those days wisely, because their disaster of an effort against the Oilers on Thursday traveled south on Highway 21 and infected the Islanders until it was too late against the Flames.
Milan Lucic scored 4:36 into the game on a clean one-timer from Jonathan Huberdeau. Less than two minutes later, Blake Coleman corralled his own rebound from a sharp angle to give Calgary a 2-0 lead. Then at 14:21, Nikita Zadorov beat Semyon Varlamov clean from the blue line to make it 3-0, one night after the Islanders said they could not let the horrific start that befell them in Edmonton happen again.
Varlamov, making his return from a groin injury, looked rusty early on, stopping just three of six shots in the first period, but the Islanders did their goaltender no favors. For the first 15 minutes, you could count the number of pucks they got deep on one hand. They offered no resistance in the neutral zone. It was, plain and simple, embarrassing.
Even after Parise made it 3-1 in the dying embers of the first period, the last 40 minutes of the game had become about retaining some pride rather than getting two points.
The Islanders managed to do that, as Jacob Markstrom bailed the Flames out on breakaway chances by Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Casey Cizikas in the second period, and the game became altogether tighter, but that is as hollow a silver lining as can be.
Nazem Kadri put a bow on the match with a sharp-angled goal at 6:59 of the third period. That made it 4-1, eliminating any chance of a comeback on a night when the Islanders didn’t particularly deserve to have one anyway.
The Islanders can count themselves as lucky to still be in a playoff spot as they jet home, though the Penguins have three games in hand and just two points to make up, so that may not last long. They are four points behind the Capitals and Rangers, having blown a chance to make up two points on Washington, which also lost on Friday.
Just earlier this week, the Islanders had won four of five games and played some of their best hockey all year in doing so.
Now, they look like a team that needs to get back to the basics and in a hurry. Otherwise, 2023 will go the same way as 2022, and no one will be quite so forgiving this time around.