The Washington Capitals haven’t given themselves much of a chance to win their last two games, both crucial road contests against divisional opponents. For the second straight game, the Caps allowed multiple goals in the first period of a road game against a divisional opponent on Sunday night. And for the second straight game, the early ditch proved to be too much to climb out of. The Caps dropped their fifth straight game (0-3-2), losing 4-1 to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
“We took three penalties in the offensive zone,” laments Caps coach Adam Oates. “That can’t happen. We shot ourselves in the foot. Bad turnover for the first goal, and the first shot on net is in the net so you’re fighting an uphill battle right from the beginning.”
The losing streak is Washington’s longest since an eight-game skid (0-6-2) from Dec. 2-18, 2010.
“We’re in a slump right now, that’s for sure,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom. “And that’s tough. But we’ve got to find a way to get through it. We’ve got to start playing way better than we’re doing right now. It’s tough right now.”
Sunday’s loss came on the heels of a 5-1 defeat at Columbus on Friday, a game in which the Caps fell behind 3-0 in the first 22 minutes of the game. The Caps were hoping the Columbus game might have been a blip on the radar screen, but they followed it up with another lopsided loss, marking the first time this season they’ve lost consecutive games by three or more goals.
“I’m not sure I would call it an anomaly, the [Columbus] game,” says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. “I think when you play you have to be honest with yourself and last game we didn’t deserve a win and I don’t think we did tonight. I don’t think that the score should have been that [lopsided]; a couple of fluky bounces and whatnot.
“We have to play better. This is the time of year where clubs are figuring themselves out. You can see it with the Rangers. It’s a completely different team than the one we played a month ago here. We’ve got to do the same; we have to match them. And we have to be honest with our efforts and know that we can do better.”
An early Washington mistake gave New York a quick 1-0 lead just 70 seconds into Sunday’s game. Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov turned the puck over at the Washington line, with Rangers winger Rick Nash reading Orlov’s pass, picking it off and cutting directly in on net. Nash went to his backhand and roofed the puck over the left shoulder of Caps starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer.
The Caps more than held their own in five-on-five play over the rest of the first frame, but they weren’t able to manufacture any offense. And, as has been the case too often of late, the Caps ran into a spate of penalty trouble late in the period.
Martin Erat went off for hooking at 15:24, and 23 seconds later Karl Alzner was also busted for the same infraction. Down two men for a span of 1:37, the Caps were in a tough spot they would not get out of. The Rangers needed only 19 seconds to make it a 2-0 game; Nash threaded a shot through Grubauer to put the Blueshirts up 2-0 at 16:06 of the frame.
The Capitals were able to kill off the Alzner minor, but New York scored just two seconds after the Washington blueliner was released from the box to make it a 3-0 game at 17:49 of the first. Derek Stepan scored the third Rangers goal on a wrist shot from just above the top of the right circle.
“I think we can’t win games if we sit in the box for 25 or 20 minutes a game,” says Grubauer. “Our 5-on-5 has been good. We worked those guys down low in the first period, I think we spent like 10 or eight minutes in their zone. So 5-on-5 we were great but we just can’t have those penalties.”
For the second game in a row, Grubauer was pulled in favor of Holtby after allowing three goals. Grubauer surrendered three goals on 14 shots in just under 22 minutes of work in Columbus on Friday and was dented for three tallies on eight shots in 17:49 of work against the Rangers on Sunday.
“It’s not the way I wanted it to go, but it’s part of the job,” says Grubauer. “A player gets benched, a goalie gets pulled. It’s my job to stop the puck. I didn’t stop it today. I’ve got to work on that and move on.”
“Obviously the first shot is a breakaway,” relates Oates, “the second shot is a 5-on-3. And then the third goal I’m sure he wants back, but he’s still a kid, too. I’m sure he’s not happy but we put him a situation that is very difficult.”
Washington got a power play chance late in the first period, one that carried over into the second frame. Just half a minute into the middle period, the Caps were on a two-man advantage of their own when New York’s Carl Hagelin was sent off for slashing.
Twenty-nine seconds after Hagelin was seated, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin rifled a one-timer that beat New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist on the short side to make it a 3-1 game. What’s more, the Caps still had 1:31 worth of power play remaining, giving them a chance to pull closer.
It didn’t happen. Instead, the Caps surrendered a shorthanded goal that restored the Rangers’ three-goal lead. Dominic Moore took off with the puck out of the Washington end, carrying down the left wing side. Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov raced back to keep even with Rangers forward Ryan Callahan, neutralizing Moore’s pass option. Moore let go of a slapshot from the top of the left circle and Holtby made the save, but Orlov couldn’t keep Callahan from potting the rebound to make it 4-1 at 2:25 of the second.
“I think [Orlov] relaxed when he got in front of [Callahan],” observes Oates. “And Callahan kept working.”
Caps defenseman Mike Green put one past Lundqvist at 10:21 of the second, but that one was nullified by an interference minor on Erat. Other than that, Washington never threatened to shorten the Rangers’ three-goal lead.
“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” says Oates, of giving up early multiple-goal leads. “You’re looking to see how you’re going to feel in the game, get into the game, you‘re on the road. And we were going along okay. They only had I think three chances in 5-on-5 [play] over the first 40 minutes. But they didn’t have to earn them because they didn’t have to get into the game.”
“You’ve got to get back to doing the things that you did,” says Backstrom, when queried as to what the Caps need to do to get back to the way they had been playing earlier in the month. “You’ve got to play a little simpler; stay out of the box. More shots, I would say. We did good those games, and we moved the puck well those games, too. We’ve got to find a way to play that way every night. It can’t just be once every 10 games. We’ve got to find a way to play good every night. That’s the expectations we should have of ourselves every night.”
Silver Lining – Holtby has had his struggles of late, and Grubauer has become Washington’s go-to guy in goal over the last month and a half. But Holtby was solid in his two relief outings this weekend.
He allowed three goals on 40 shots in the two games combined, working about 80 minutes in the process. One goal was a power play tally, one was shorthanded and one came three seconds after a Washington penalty expired.
“It’s coming,” says Holtby. “It’s a work to get back to where I want to be. I feel a lot more comfortable, I feel natural, I feel like myself out there again, battling for screens and challenging shooters, trying to make them make a good shot. It’s coming. The last two games here, I have felt a little bit better. Obviously you’re not as mentally sharp coming into a game, but it’s been positive.”
Non-Support – After defeating the Rangers on Dec. 27 at Verizon Center, Grubauer owned a 5-1-1 record. He was saddled with the loss in Sunday’s game and is now 6-4-5 on the season.
The rookie netminder is 1-3-4 in his last eight starts.
Grubauer has not had much offensive support with which to work of late. Washington has scored a grand total of 13 goals in Grubauer’s nine losses, including exactly one goal in each of his last four starts and six of his last eight assignments.
Two-Man Trouble – The Capitals allowed just one 5-on-3 goal in their first 40 games this season, but they’ve now been victimized by three such goals in their nine games in the month of January.
The Capitals’ total of four 3-on-5 goals allowed this season is tied for fourth most in the NHL. Only Toronto (six), Philadelphia and Ottawa (five each) have allowed more.
No More Two-Man Monkey – Ovechkin’s second-period goal was his 35th of the season and his 13th power-play goal of the season. Both of those totals are league-leading figures. The extra-man tally also ended an 0-for-15 power play drought for the Caps, the longest gap between extra-man tallies in the 97 games the team has played under Oates.
More importantly, it ended Washington’s nearly yearlong streak of futility with the two-man advantage. Ovechkin’s 5-on-3 goal was the Caps’ first since Mike Ribeiro netted one in New Jersey in the fourth game of the 2012-13 season, on Jan. 25, 2012.
The Capitals had gone 13 straight two-man advantages during the regular season – a total time of 13:16 – without lighting the lamp on a two-man advantage until Ovechkin’s goal on Sunday.
Buffalo, Calgary and Dallas are now the only three teams in the NHL that have not managed to score a 5-on-3 power-play goal thus far this season.
Four Score – The Caps have surrendered four or more goals in a game in three straight contests for the first time in more than 10 months, since March 9-12, 2013. The Caps lost each of those games as well, getting outscored by a combined total of 13-3 in games played against the Islanders in New York and at home against the Rangers and the Hurricanes.
Short Stuff – Callahan’s shorthanded goal was the sixth allowed by the Capitals this season, tied for third-most in the NHL. Only Edmonton (nine) and Philadelphia (eight) have surrendered more shorthanded strikes than Washington.
Not Again – Callahan’s goal came just 86 seconds after Ovechkin’s goal, marking the 22nd time in 49 games this season that the Capitals have surrendered a goal within two minutes of scoring one.
O-Zone Hat Trick – Erat was whistled for three penalties on the night, all three of them on offensive-zone infractions. His hooking call in the first proved to be costly, his interference call in the second cost Washington a goal – it would have been the 100th of Green’s NHL career – and his second-period slashing call finished the hat trick.
Erat went through the first 15 games of this season without taking a single penalty of any kind.
Believe it or not, he had a game last season that exceeded tonight’s sin bin total. On Feb. 12, 2013 while Erat was still a member of the Nashville Predators, he incurred eight minutes worth of penalties in a span of just 9:17 in a game against the San Jose Sharks.
Erat was called for a double-minor for hi-sticking at 1:48 of the second period, a holding the stick minor oat 6:31 and a hooking violation at 11:05. The three penalties against Erat that night came in span of just four shifts.
Three’s A Crowd – Since the Capitals began carrying three goaltenders on their active roster, they’ve won just four of 15 games (4-6-5). Prior to that, the Caps were 18-13-3.
Oh For The Road – The Capitals’ just completed three-game road trip was its first journey of more than two games in nearly three months, since a four-game trip through western Canada from Oct. 22-28.
Washington came home empty-handed from the three-game road trip, with all three games coming against fellow Metropolitan Division opponents.
The last time Washington returned home empty-handed (in terms of standings points) from a road trip of three or more games in length was an ill-fated journey to Nashville, Winnipeg and Toronto from Nov. 15-19, 2011. The Caps scored only one goal in each of those three games and were outscored by a combined 14-3 on that trip.
Bruce Boudreau was the Caps’ coach at the time; he was relieved of his duties nine days after the end of that road trip.
Turn Off The Spotlight – Washington has been abysmal under the spotlight of the national television glare this season. The Caps are now 0-6 in nationally televised games, and they’ve been outscored 25-10 in the process. The Caps’ next appearance in a nationally televised game comes on Jan. 28 against the Sabres in Buffalo.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears finished up a busy weekend in which they played three games in as many nights with a Sunday home game against the Albany Devils. Hershey came away with a 4-3 shootout victory and two wins in its three games on the weekend.
Dustin Gazley scored his fourth goal of the season, Ryan Potulny his first and David Kolomatis his sixth to support David Leggio’s 25-save effort in goal.
With Sunday’s win, Hershey (19-14-3-3) slipped into the eighth spot in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings. The Bears are one point ahead of St. John’s.
By The Numbers – Green led the Capitals with 24:28 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with six shots on net and 13 shot attempts … Tom Wilson led Washington with six hits … John Erskine paced the Capitals with six blocked shots … Backstrom won 11 of 15 draws (73%), accounting for half of Washington’s face-off wins on the night all by himself. The rest of the Caps combined to win 11 of 37 draws (29.7%) during the game … Ryan McDonagh led New York with a low ice time figure of 20:37. With the early lead, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was able to spread the workload rather evenly amongst his 18 skaters. Only Daniel Carcillo (8:10) skated fewer than 12 minutes for New York … Sixteen of New York’s 18 skaters were credited with at least one hit in the game; only Nash and Marc Staal were not … Michael Del Zotto led the Rangers with five blocked shots.