After taking two steps forward with wins in both ends of back-to-back games and ending a four-game losing streak over the weekend, the Washington Capitals took a step backwards with a 4-1 home ice loss at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.
“I think no matter who you are you eventually leak a little oil,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “And I think we did that. Over the course of 80 games, I think sometimes you’re going to have games where everything the other team does well goes in, but for the first 30 minutes I didn’t mind our game at all.”
Coming off a weekend in which they authored a pair of comeback wins beyond the 60-minute mark, the Caps put together a strong first period. They had the better of the scoring chances and owned an 11-7 advantage in even strength shots on net and a 23-14 lead in shot attempts. But Carolina took a 1-0 lead into the room at the first intermission, thanks to a Jeff Skinner shot from down low on the right side that somehow snuck into the net on the short side, worming its way in between the post and the body of Caps goalie Braden Holtby.
Washington earned it first power play of the night late in the first period, and it started the middle stanza with an extra man for the first 1:34. Given the way the Capitals played in the first, there was plenty of reason to believe that if they kept it up, they’d break through.
The Caps teed up four shot tries on the carryover portion of the power play, but could get only one of them on net and were unable to get the equalizing tally. The two teams were basically even over the first half of the second period, but Washington came unraveled in a span of less than four minutes past the midpoint of the period.
With the Caps’ forwards going off for a change, Canes defenseman Jay Harrison wired a perfect home run pass from his own goal line to Skinner, who was stationed along the left wing wall at the far blueline. Skinner skated down to the dot and launched a shot that again beat Holtby to the short side, giving the Canes a 2-0 lead at 11:18 of the second.
Less than 90 seconds later, Caps center Mikhail Grabovski coughed up the puck in his own end, then hauled down Canes pivot Jordan Staal, incurring a tripping minor in the process. Washington was unable to kill the penalty, permitting a third Canes goal on a slapper from center point off the stick of blueliner Andrej Sekera. That goal came at 14:09, giving Carolina a healthy 3-0 advantage.
Carolina wasn’t finished. With Washington’s top line on the ice, the Canes worked the puck around down low, and then back to Harrison at the point. His drive from there was muffled in front, and then Jiri Tlusty pulled it to his backhand and fired from the slot, over Holtby’s blocker and into the net for a 4-0 Carolina lead.
In a span of just over four minutes, Carolina had teed up 13 shot attempts to just one for the Capitals. In a stretch of 3:44, the Canes scored three times on six shots on net to essentially put what had been a tight game right out of reach.
“Their second goal kind of deflated us a little bit,” admits Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “I still thought we were okay, then they got that power play goal and there was just no life left. Not only on the bench, but in the stands. We may have underestimated these guys a little bit and when they were up 3-0 on us, we were mad, but we didn’t use that anger the right way. We used it to kind of feel sorry for ourselves. It was really strange to see.”
Asked about Alzner’s comments, Oates concurred.
“I think that’s the correct answer,” says Oates. “I think what he says is accurate. We all feel that. The building feels it. We’d be lying if we said it doesn’t happen. It’s not like they go out and don’t try. That’s part of the gig, it’s part of the deal over a long year. You’re going to have moments that are like, ‘Wow,’ just like you have moments that are too good to be true. When the third goal went in, it is deflating. And you’ve got to play.”
Holtby surrendered four goals on 23 shots against in 40 minutes of work on the night. At the start of the third period, Oates pulled him in favor of rookie goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who is serving as Washington’s second goaltender while Michal Neuvirth recovers from an injury suffered in warm-ups before last Friday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens.
“I wasn’t happy with Braden’s game,” declares Oates. “But I think he’s earned the right to try and salvage and [have] us maybe pick him up. We got to the fourth one, and I could have pulled him then but I figured [I’d let him] finish the period out.”
The only drama remaining for the few that stuck around to watch was whether Carolina goaltender Justin Peters could find a way to whitewash Washington for the third time in his NHL career. Caps defenseman Mike Green spared himself and his teammates that ignominy, netting his first goal of the season on a Washington power play at 6:39 of the third period to account for the 4-1 final score.
Asked how he will approach this game with his team when the Caps reconvene on Thursday after an off day on Wednesday, Oates was noncommittal.
“I don’t know,” he answers. “We’ll see. I’ve got a little time to think about it and we’ll talk. We came in after the first period and we all looked at each other and said, ‘Best period of the year. Best first period of the year.’
“[Carolina] had two chances; [the scoring chances were] 7-2. And the goal [they scored] was a chance. So we did a lot of good things. But we’ll see how we address it.”
Bright Spot – Playing in front of the home crowd for the first time, Grubauer acquitted himself well in his third NHL outing, second relief appearance and first action in the league this season. He went between the pipes at the start of the third period, stepping right into a difficult situation, with Carolina on a carryover power play for the first 69 seconds of the frame.
“I like it because it gets me going,” says Grubauer of coming off the bench cold and immediately going up against the opposition’s extra-man unit. “I don’t have to stand around and wait for the first shot. Right there, the first minute or minute and a half they had on the power play was pretty good. I got my feet going and got the intensity going. It was pretty good for me.”
Grubauer made two strong stops on Skinner in the first five minutes of the third, both on the Carolina power play. He stopped Skinner again late in the period with another impressive stop, denying the young Carolina forward his first NHL hat trick.
“I think I played against Jeff a couple of times in junior,” notes Grubauer. “He got us pretty good in the Kitchener-Windsor series at the time. I just have to make a simple play and that’s what I tried to do.”
Washington’s fourth-round choice (113th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Grubauer stopped all eight shots he faced, including four while the Canes were on the power play.
“It feels pretty good coming in and getting those 20 minutes,” states Grubauer. “Obviously I’ve got to learn a couple things here and I’ve got to pay attention to a couple things, but I try not to look up at the score clock and watch the time so I’m pretty focused on every time they come down, one by one, and not just 20 minutes at a time. One rush at a time.”
Grubauer made his NHL debut in relief of Holtby in another 4-1 Capitals loss, at Philadelphia on Feb. 27. He has now stopped all 22 shots he has faced in 45 minutes worth of NHL relief work.
Grubauer was nicked for five goals – only two at even strength – on 45 shots in his first NHL start against the Islanders in New York on March 9.
That’s One – Green scored Washington’s last goal of the 2012-13 regular season, tallying the game-winning goal in overtime against the Bruins in a 3-2 win over Boston on April 27 in the Capitals’ regular season finale.
Between then and his goal in the third period on Tuesday, he fired 64 shots on net before finally lighting the lamp for the first time in the third period of Washington’s 28th game of the season. Green’s first goal of the season was the Capitals’ 77th goal of the campaign.
Green has always been a streaky scorer. When he led all NHL defensemen with a dozen goals last season, he collected nine of those goals in a span of just 15 games, the Capitals’ final 15 games of the season. Green had three goals in his first 20 games of 2012-13.
He’s Special – A game after recording the first shorthanded assist of his NHL career on Nicklas Backstrom’s game-tying tally in the final minute of regulation Saturday night against the Islanders, Chimera picked up a helper on the power play, claiming the secondary assist on Green’s goal.
For Chimera, it was his second power play assist in 277 games in a Capitals’ sweater. The last one came on Oct. 30, 2010 at Calgary in a 7-2 win over the Flames.
With 12 assists on the season in 28 games, Chimera has one more than he managed in 47 contests in 2012-13. The 34-year-old winger is only nine assists shy of matching his single-season career best of 21, established in 2006-07 with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Power Outage – After lighting up the league for 20 power play goals in their first 17 games of the season, the vaunted Capitals power play unit has gone cold. Yes, the extra-man crew accounted for Caps’ lone goal of the game in Tuesday’s loss, but it failed on the first two opportunities of the game, when a goal would have tied the contest at 1-1.
“It’s reads,” responds Oates when asked about the power play’s struggles. “I think that’s similar to a lot the other problems that show themselves every once in a while. Guys are frustrated; they make bad decisions. I think over the course of a long year, you’re going to have these moments. But I think it comes down to the individual mistakes.”
The Capitals are 5-for-37 (13.5%) on the power play over their last 11 games, posting a 5-5-1 record during that span. Washington has scored a power play goal in only four of those 11 games, winning just one of them (Nov. 17 vs. St. Louis).
Oates was asked whether he believes opposing penalty killing units are adjusting to the Caps’ power play unit.
“I do,” answers Oates, “and there are reads to be made based on that. We try and coach them and they don’t always make the right read. That’s our job, to try and get them to figure out what the other team is showing us on a night to night basis.”
Middling Against The Metro – The Caps are now 5-4 against Metropolitan Division foes this season, and they are just 3-4 against divisional foes at Verizon Center in 2013-14. Washington is 6-3 on home ice against the rest of the league this season.
One At A Time – Carolina has not managed multiple power play goals in any of its 28 games this season. Dating back to last season, the Hurricanes have now gone 35 straight regular season games without netting more than a single power play goal.
Half A Dozen – Skinner’s two tallies against the Capitals in Tuesday’s tilt give him six for the season, tying him with Sekera, Eric Staal and Nathan Gerbe for the team lead. The quartet’s team-leading total of six goals is the lowest team-leading goal total among the 30 NHL clubs this season.
You Again – Peters’ win on Tuesday in Washington was his fifth of the season, leaving him just one victory shy of his single-season career high of six, established during his rookie campaign of 2009-10.
Tuesday’s win was the 20th of Peters’ NHL career (20-29-5) and the fourth to come at Washington’s expense. He has no more than two victories against any other NHL club.
Including Tuesday’s game, Peters is now 4-3 with two of his three career shutouts lifetime against the Capitals. He has a 1.68 career GAA and a .938 save pct. against the Caps and a 3.29 GAA and an .899 save pct. against the rest of the NHL.
Thus far, that 2009-10 season is the only winning season (6-3) Peters has put together in the NHL.
By The Numbers – John Carlson led the Caps with 22:58 in ice time and with five shots on net … Green led the Capitals with four blocked shots … Aaron Volpatti (9:55) was the only Washington skater who did not reach the 10-minute mark on the night.