For the first time in their franchise history, the Capitals are opening the season with a series of six one-game homestands. And for the first time in more than two decades – since back when they called Landover’s USAir Arena home – they’ve started their home schedule with three regulation losses in four games.
The latest home ice setback came on Saturday night at the hands of the Florida Panthers in what had to be a frustrating game from Washington’s standpoint. The Caps did a lot of things right, but they were far from perfect as well. At night’s end, they found themselves on the short end of a 4-1 score.
Florida goaltender James Reimer was excellent, stopping 41 of 42 shots to earn the victory.
“Tonight we needed our goaltending at certain times of the game,” says Panthers coach Bob Boughner, “and he certainly was the first star in my mind. He was big, he was challenging the shooters, his rebound control was great, and it made it a little easier for our [defense].”
As well as Washington played at five-on-five for most of the night – and the Caps dominated in terms of even strength possession, outshooting the Panthers 34-9 at evens – they committed a trio of cardinal hockey sins that ultimately sealed their demise.
First, they gave up a goal before the game was two minutes old.
Florida grabbed an early 1-0 lead, scoring on its first shot of the game. The Panthers won a center ice draw, and dumped the puck into the Washington zone. Caps defenseman Christian Djoos got to the puck first, but backhanded it softly off the back of the cage. Panthers center Jared McCann collected it and fed Connor Brickley in front for an easy tap-in at 1:26 of the first.
The Caps held the Panthers without a shot on net for nearly the next 14 minutes, and Washington generated some scoring opportunities of its own during that stretch. The Capitals put 16 shots on Reimer in the first frame, but weren’t able to light the lamp, starting a theme that would stretch over most of the contest.
Washington’s second sin was permitting a second goal with less than a minute remaining in the game’s opening period.
With 1:26 left in the first, Caps defenseman Madison Bowey went to the box for hooking. Florida’s Evgenii Dadonov scored on the ensuing power play, finding some room in the slot and patiently waiting out Caps goalie Philipp Grubauer before slipping a shot past him from between the hash marks with 29.5 seconds left in the first.
Despite turning in one of their better periods of the young season, the Caps went to the room down two goals after 20 minutes of play.
“That’s the frustrating thing,” laments Caps coach Barry Trotz. “We’ve given up a lot of power-play goals late in kills and what have you, and we’d like to have gotten through that period down only one, even though you feel like you should be up one or two and you weren’t. So that was the frustration. Maybe that carried into the second period, I don’t know. But we’re going to have to be better.”
As it turned out, Florida already had all the offense it would need on this night at that juncture of the contest. But the Caps had one more sin in them, and that was taking penalties in bunches.
The Capitals were whistled for four minors over a span of just seven and a half minutes in the early portion of the second. So instead of mounting an attack and cutting into the Florida lead, the Caps found themselves continually killing penalties, and on the second of back-to-backs to boot. Their propensity for penalties led to an extended two-man advantage for the Panthers, and Vincent Trocheck scored while Florida was two men to the good, making it a 3-0 game at 8:58 of the middle stanza.
“The penalties have been a little bit of an ongoing thing here,” says Trotz. “It took all the rhythm out, it forced a big portion of our bench to sit there and get cold.”
Washington managed some offensive-zone time and some scoring chances in the latter half of the frame, and the Caps finally broke through on Djoos’ second goal of the season at 15:23. Djoos took a pass from Devante Smith-Pelly along the right wing half wall, and then the blueliner cut laterally through the middle of the ice until he was in a desirable shooting location in the slot. From there, he ripped it past Reimer to make it a 3-1 game.
Despite all the penalty killing time in the second, the Caps still outshot the Cats 13-12 in the frame. Washington managed 13 more shots on Reimer in the third, and managed to create some goalmouth scramble situations as well, but no lamplighters. When Aleksander Barkov slid the puck into a vacant Caps net near night’s end, the Caps’ fate was sealed.
“The one thing today that made the difference was we didn’t bury our chances at five-on-five,” says Caps center Lars Eller. “We took it to them and we did all the right things at five-on-five – created scoring chances, enough to win the game. But all the penalties are disrupting the flow of our team. It’s hurting us a lot.”
A three-game Western road trip is next for Washington, and then a couple more one-game homstands mixed in with one-game road trips. It’s not a schedule that’s conducive to stacking up wins, but the Caps have to find a way to do so if they hope to remain within shouting distance of the rest of the pack in the Metropolitan Division.
Saturday’s loss was also the Caps’ third straight in regulation on home ice, the first time they’ve suffered that fate since Nov. 20-29, 2013, the season before Trotz took over the team’s coaching reins.
“At home, we’re not good at home here,” says Trotz. “We’re 1-3. We’ve been pretty good on the road and we’re going back on the road. We’ll just have to continue, we’ll have to pull things together as we have on the road, get back here and starting building some traction at home.”