Thursday night’s game between the Caps and the Blue Jackets in Columbus pitted a pair of 56-point teams looking to lift themselves up in the Metropolitan Division standings, closer to the top eight in the Eastern Conference and a potential berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
One of the teams on the ice at Nationwide Arena looked like a playoff team on Thursday, and it wasn’t the Capitals. Aiming to put together a modest three-game winning streak for the first time in 50 days, the Caps instead laid an egg and were humbled 5-2 at the hands of the Jackets.
Washington has won just five of its last 19 games (5-9-5).
The Caps looked sloppy and disorganized from the game’s outset.
“We were terrible,” said Caps coach Adam Oates. “It was probably the worst period that I’ve seen the boys play in over a year, the first period. Why? I don’t know. Collectively, all of us. I thought the defense got beat from the outside to the inside on simple one-on-ones, we didn’t track right and we didn’t pass the puck clean. It was a terrible first period.”
Thursday’s loss to the Jackets in Columbus came 13 days after Washington absorbed a similarly thorough thumping in the same arena, and it halted the Caps’ most modest of winning runs at just two. The Capitals are back in seventh place in the Metro Division standings, and they’re 13th in the Eastern Conference standings.
“It was very disappointing,” said Oates. “Very disappointing. All in all, a terrible first 30 minutes of hockey. I thought [the Jackets] were feeling us out, quite honestly, early. You look up and the shots are like 5-4. And it’s the same as the last time we were in this barn, we’re down a couple goals. Terrible start.”
A Tom Wilson hit on Jackets’ defenseman Nikita Nikitin just before the five-minute mark of the first frame had some reverberations later in the frame. Jackets winger Nick Foligno challenged Wilson to answer for the hit with a scrap at 10:19 of the first, and Foligno earned a two-minute instigator minor and a 10-minute misconduct for his trouble.
Wilson was asked after the game if he thought his fight with Foligno came about as a result of his hit on Nikitin.
“I think so,” says Wilson. “[Foligno] came up and I’ve got no problem if they’re going to serve the extra two in fighting. He felt that it was a bad hit; I thought that it was okay. I hit [Nikitin] right in the chest. I just answered the bell because they wanted to defend their teammate.”
Having seen their first power play chance of the night evaporate midway through the man-advantage when captain Alex Ovechkin tripped Jackets’ forward Artem Anisimov to prevent a breakaway scoring chance, the Caps now had another opportunity to grab an early lead in a meaningful game. But not only were the Caps not able to make the Jackets pay for Foligno’s transgression, they fell into a 1-0 hole of their own on a shorthanded strike at the tail end of the Washington power play.
Jackets forward R.J. Umberger poked the puck past Caps defenseman John Carlson at the right point, and Columbus forward Derek MacKenzie scooped it up and skated in alone on Caps goalie Braden Holtby. MacKenzie deked and scored to make it 1-0 at 12:18 of the first.
Instead of their power play – now 6-for-48 (12.5%) in the month of January – getting them a 1-0 lead, the Caps’ extra-man unit surrendered a goal, a theoretical two-goal swing.
The Caps were buzzing the Jackets’ end for the equalizer a few minutes later, and Washington had Columbus hemmed in its own end on a lengthy shift when the puck came loose in the slot. The Jackets recovered it, skated it out with speed and quickly set up in the Washington end. Jack Johnson’s shot from the right point hit bodies in front and came right to Columbus center Ryan Johansen, who drilled it past Holtby for a 2-0 Columbus advantage at 16:56.
With the two teams skating four skaters to a side in the first minute of the middle period, Columbus upped its lead to 3-0. The Jackets broke the puck out of their own end on a rush, and Brandon Dubinsky’s slapper from the middle of the ice just inside the Washington line deflected off John Carlson’s stick and flew by Holtby just 24 seconds after the start of the period.
Johansen made it 4-0 with his second goal of the night, a brilliant individual effort that was aided by a lot of puck-watching and some futile puck-chasing on the Caps’ part. Johansen pulled the puck all the way around the back of the net on his backhand, pulled it out in front on the other side, stopped, went back to his forehand and dragged it around a Marcus Johansson pokecheck attempt, went back to the backhand and tucked it into the far corner of the cage at 12:14 of the second.
Caps winger Joel Ward erased his team’s goose egg from the scoreboard when he sniped a shorthanded wrister past Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky with 1:41 left in the second.
Eric Fehr scored for Washington on a nifty backhand shot early in the third period, a shot that followed a pair of good passes from Wilson and Dmitry Orlov. At that point, the Caps were halfway up the hill of that four-goal deficit, and there were 16:42 remaining in the third period.
Washington has had a terrible habit of surrendering goals in short order – less than two minutes – after scoring a goal of its own this season. Cam Atkinson struck just 64 seconds after Fehr’s goal to restore the Jackets’ three-goal lead and to deplete whatever amount of wind that may have been remaining in the Caps’ collective sails at that juncture of the night.
Ovechkin was on the ice for all five Columbus goals. He finished the night as the first Caps player in more than a decade to be saddled with a minus-5.
“I was today the worst player out there,” lamented Ovechkin. “Blame it on me. It’s not about [Nicklas Backstrom] or [Johansson] or [Carlson] or [Holtby]. I can’t play like that. I have to bounce back.”
Caps right wing Troy Brouwer didn’t think his team’s effort was good enough. Given the importance of Thursday’s game in the standings, that’s more than a little disconcerting.
“We had a good feeling in our last two games,” said Brouwer. “We were going in the right direction. But we didn’t have our best effort in the first two periods and it’s been a long time since we can say that we weren’t working hard. Even in that losing streak that we had, I thought that we were working hard and we were trying to do the right things. But tonight we didn’t help ourselves from the beginning of the game, getting behind early and not working hard, which is something that our team can’t do.”
After the game, Jackets’ coach Todd Richards was happy with the win but unhappy with his team for not closing the door tightly, and for putting Washington on the power play three times in the game’s final frame.
“For 38 minutes it was [great],” said Richards. “Then we give up the shorthanded goal at the end of the second. It was a 4-0 game; I think they had like 11 shots. I really liked the way that we were playing. They score the goal and it probably gives them a little bit of life.
“I don’t want to get too deflated; it was a huge win for the hockey team and a huge win for the guys, a big game. I challenged them this afternoon, needing more from individuals. I think we got that tonight, but I think we mismanaged the third period.”
The Caps are in danger of mismanaging their season. They’ve won only 24 of 54 games thus far this season and have won fewer than a third of their games (16 of 54) in regulation or overtime. Washington hasn’t won as many as three straight games since Dec. 7-10 and hasn’t won four straight since Nov. 1-7. The Caps have had a winning streak of at least seven games in length for each of the last six seasons, but haven’t indicated that they’re capable of such a run in 2013-14. The same mistakes that were costing them games and points early in the season are still doing so two-thirds of the way into the season.
“It is a lot of the same stuff,” began Caps right wing Troy Brouwer, “since the beginning of the season, since exhibition, even since last year that we’ve been talking about. Our attention to detail needs to be there night in and night out. We need to make sure that we’re not being predictable with our mistakes so that teams can key on them.
“You’re going to make mistakes night in and night out, and that’s just how the game goes. You’ve got to be cleaning up your end, you’ve got to be cleaning up your decision making, your possession with the puck, making sure that you’re not making it easy for teams to read off how you’re playing.”
Man Down – Caps defenseman Mike Green left the game and did not return after absorbing a Boone Jenner bodycheck along the wall behind the Washington goal at 13:17 of the first. Green suffered an upper body injury on the play and did not return.
Washington had to play with five defensemen the rest of the way, and did not have its most dynamic offensive threat from the backline in its effort to dig its way out of a large deficit.
“I don’t know his condition any more than you do at this point,” said Brouwer after the game. “He’s on our [power play], he’s – I would say – the leader of our back end back there. Guys look up to him, guys feed off him and read off him, how he is playing in the game. He’s a big part of our offense from the defensive end as well. Who knows what the future is for him at this point, but we’re going to prepare like he is in the lineup for [Friday] night’s game.”
Brouwer challenged Jenner to a fight early in the third, making sure the Jackets’ rookie was taken to task for his hit on Green, just as Foligno had done for Columbus earlier in the game.
“I just didn’t like how he drove him in [to the boards] at the end of his hit and Green got injured as a result of it,” noted Brouwer. “It’s the type of situation where a guy on our team gets hurt and we don’t want to let those types of hits stand on our team.”
Short Stuff – Ward’s shorthanded goal was his second of the season; both of them have come at the Blue Jackets’ expense. Ward scored a shorthanded goal in the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime win over Columbus at Verizon Center on Nov. 12.
Jason Chimera was the last Caps player to have more than one shorthanded goal in a season; he had two in 2011-12.
MacKenzie’s shorthanded goal for the Jackets was the seventh surrendered by the Capitals this season. Only Ottawa (eight) and Philadelphia and Edmonton (nine each) have allowed more shorthanded strikes in 2013-14.
Penalty Trouble – Washington faced seven shorthanded situations in Thursday’s game, the most it has faced in any game this season and the most it has faced in almost exactly a year. The last time the Caps faced as many penalty killing missions in the same game was when they went 7-for-8 on the kill in a 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Jan. 31, 2013.
The last time Washington was perfect on the kill while facing as many as seven opposing power plays in a game was in a 3-0 win over the Canadiens in Montreal on Jan. 18, 2012. The Caps were 7-for-7 on the kill that night to help goaltender Michal Neuvirth to a whitewashing of the Habs at Bell Centre.
Century City – Over their last 82 games dating back to last season, the Blue Jackets have amassed exactly 100 points with a record of 46-28-8. A hundred points will get you into the playoffs.
By The Numbers – Washington is now 9-10-2 against Metropolitan Division opponents … Carlson led Washington with 29:45 in ice time, including 7:14 of power play time and 7:49 of shorthanded ice time … Ovechkin got two of his 10 shot attempts on net … Fehr paced the Caps with six shots on net and five hits … MacKenzie led the Jackets with seven hits.