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Caps Can't Close; Fall to Philly

March 3, 2014

This one might leave a mark.


Not all losses are created equal, and both the pain and the stain of the 5-4 overtime defeat the Washington Capitals absorbed at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday afternoon at Verizon Center figure to linger longer than most.


The Caps entered the game with a modest four-game winning streak, matching their longest of the season. They also entered the game with the ability to hop over the Flyers in the Metropolitan Division standings with a regulation win.


Caps goaltender Braden Holtby – who deserved a far better fate on this afternoon – wasn’t even aware that Washington could have climbed into third place in the Metro on Sunday.


“I didn’t know that,” said a clearly frustrated Holtby after the game. “I’m just more frustrated with the way that we played in the last 10 minutes. It was embarrassing.”


Owning a 4-2 lead after 40 minutes of play and an 18-0-2 mark when leading games after two periods this season, leapfrogging Philly seemed like a more than reasonable possibility as the third period started. But there has been some bad wood beneath the Capitals’ veneer this season, and it has manifested itself with the team’s puzzling, frustrating and repeated inability to protect two-goal leads.


Between the alarming trend of surrendering goals against within two minutes of scoring one of their own and their tendency to play with two-goal leads like a pyromaniac with a box of matches and a can of kerosene, the Caps have been slowly burning away their playoff position all season. Instead of battling the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the Metro, the Caps are on the outside of the playoff picture and forlornly looking in with 20 games remaining, most of them against clubs well north of Washington in the overall NHL standings.


What can be done to save the Capitals from themselves before it’s too late?


“More urgency,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward. “Even though we are [ahead], we still have to play desperate a little bit; just wanting to really finish them off I think. We kind of let them [Philadelphia] off the hook a little bit. We have done that the last couple of games, which is frustrating. I think at times we may sit back a little bit, and you just can’t do that in this league, especially with guys like that on the opposition.”


What makes this all even harder to stomach is that Washington put together a terrific first 20 minutes, and the Flyers were fortunate to be down by only a goal when the first frame was in the books. The Caps’ second line of Martin Erat, Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer put together a solid shift in the offensive zone early in the stanza, moving the puck around and putting it toward the net consistently. The Caps teed up five shots in a span of 25 seconds on that shift, and the fifth of those went in.


Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov made a good read, creeping in from his left point position down toward the left dot as he saw Brouwer – who was stationed behind the Philadelphia cage – take a pass from Erat. Brouwer spotted Orlov and fed him perfectly for a rocket of a one-timer that staked Washington to a 1-0 lead at 6:06 of the first period.


Washington right wing Tom Wilson barreled into Philly goaltender Steve Mason at 11:01 of the first, taking a roughing minor in the process. Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux blasted a shot over the left shoulder of Caps goalie Braden Holtby just 21 seconds later, but officials on the ice waved the goal off and play continued. Once officials had a chance to take a second look a few minutes later, Giroux and the Flyers were rightfully credited with a power-play goal that made it a 1-1 game.


Half a minute after his team drew even, Philadelphia defenseman Luke Schenn took a roughing call after the whistle to give Washington its second power play of the game. The Caps didn’t cash in during the two minutes in which Schenn was in the box, but Marcus Johansson converted a perfect feed from Jason Chimera three seconds after Schenn was freed to restore the Caps’ one-goal lead.


It appeared as though the Caps would take a 3-1 lead less than a minute later when Nicklas Backstrom threaded a shot through Mason’s legs. The puck teetered near the goal line before it was swept away by Flyers blueliner Mark Streit. Once again, officials took a second look at the play at the game’s next natural stoppage, with this delay being lengthier than the first because it was so difficult to tell whether the puck had entirely crossed the goal line.


This review also went against Washington; it was decided that Streit managed to clear the disc out of harm’s way before it completely crossed the line.


The Caps had to settle for a 2-1 lead after 20, but their first-period dominance was evident in the disparity in shots on goal (17-6) and shots attempted (31-15), both of which were well in their favor.


Everyone in the building expected the Flyers to come out with much more fire in the middle period and they did so. Although the first 11 minutes of the frame were scoreless, the Flyers teed up 15 shot attempts to just three for the Caps in that span, and only Holtby’s netminding heroics enabled Washington to maintain its one-goal edge and overcome some defensive zone bumblings.


Steve Downie’s double-minor for hi-sticking John Erskine at 9:05 of the second game the Caps a chance to extend their lead, but Brooks Laich’s slashing minor just 27 seconds later cut the length of that man-advantage opportunity in half. Not only were the Caps unable to add to their lead on that power play, they surrendered a game-tying shorthanded goal to the Flyers.


Caps captain Alex Ovechkin lazily gave the puck away behind the Washington net. Thinking he was leaving it for teammate John Carlson, Ovechkin blindly left the disc for Philly center Sean Couturier instead. Couturier took the gift and centered it for trailing forward Adam Hall, and Hall pounded the puck past Holtby from the slot to make it a 2-2 game.


At that stage of the game, the Caps were resilient. They regained the lead less than a minute later.


Flyers defenseman Andrej Meszaros broke his stick on a slapshot bid which resulted in a 3-on-2 rush in the opposite direction for Washington. Mike Green carried down the right side and into the Philadelphia, shooting from close range. Mason made the stop, but the rebound came right to Washington winger Joel Ward, Ward neatly fed a blind backhand pass to Jay Beagle, who tapped it in for his second goal of the season and a 3-2 Caps lead.


The Caps gained the dreaded two-goal lead late in the second when Orlov fired home his second goal of the game through a screen in front. With 3:37 left in the second, the Caps held a 4-2 advantage.


Given the stakes of the game, Washington knew the Flyers would push back hard in the third, but the Caps seemed maddeningly helpless to do anything about it. The Caps navigated their way through some penalty trouble late in the second and early in the third, but were never able to get a convincing grip on the contest.


Philly repeatedly entered the Caps end of the ice at will in the third period, and the best Washington could do was to pursue the Flyers and the puck, mostly in a futile fashion.


“I don’t know what it is,” said Holtby. “We didn’t play a game today that we should have won. We were lucky to get to overtime. When the game is on the line like that and we have the lead, we have to lock down and play defensive hockey, and we aren’t doing that.”


Holtby is right, but the Caps didn’t play offensive hockey, either.


Over the final 12:07 of regulation and the entire 2:45 of overtime, Philadelphia outshot the Caps 13-0 and launched 28 shots on net to a meager pittance of three for Washington during that same span of 14:52.


From the time that Orlov gave the Capitals that ill-fated two-goal lead right up until Vincent Lecavalier won it for the Flyers in overtime, Philadelphia outshot Washington 19-4 and had a staggering 43 shot attempts to just 11 for the Capitals.


That’s more than taking your foot off that gas. That’s applying the emergency brakes.


To be fair, Orlov aided the Philadelphia cause by taking an extremely undisciplined five-minute major for boarding Flyers forward Brayden Schenn at 9:33 of the third. Philly put forth a shooting gallery during that all-you-can-eat power play, firing 17 shots toward Holtby and getting nine of them on net. One, a howitzer from Jakub Voracek from the right point, beat the Caps goalie to cut the Washington lead to 4-3 with 8:02 remaining.


The Caps weathered the final half of Orlov’s major without incident, but it was clear that they were running on fumes and doing whatever they could to merely hang on.


Philly was having none of it. The Flyers had seven shot attempts to just one for the Caps after the Voracek goal, and they tied it when Giroux tipped home a Voracek shot with 1:05 remaining.


That set the stage for Lecavalier’s overtime heroics, and yet another game that the Caps let slip through their fingers … like sand in the hourglass of the days of our lives.


“You expect the other team to have a push,” admitted Caps coach Adam Oates, “but let’s not give them that push.


“To me, they’ve got nothing going on. We start the [third] period short. Fine. We get into a rhythm and a five-minute board is obviously not what we want. We give them life, give their good players life and tire ourselves. They score one on it and figure out how to get one at the end.”


Instead of a regulation win in which they would have gained two points on the Flyers, the Caps were forced to settle for an overtime loss. That’s a three-point swing.


Even if Washington manages to exact a measure of revenge on the Flyers with a regulation win in Philadelphia on Wednesday when the two clubs meet for the final time this season, they’ll only be able to make up two points of the three-point swing that took place in the last 10 minutes of Sunday’s game at Verizon Center.


Heavy Duty – On Saturday in Boston, the Capitals faced a 5-on-3 power play for a full two minutes against the Bruins. The Caps weathered that without giving up a goal.


Late in the second and early in the third period of Sunday’s game against the Flyers, the Caps were faced with a lengthy (1:44) 4-on-3 power play with both of Washington’s top penalty-killing defensemen (Carlson and Karl Alzner) in the box an unavailable for shorthanded duty. Philly forward Wayne Simmonds helped the Caps dodge that bullet early in the third when he was guilty of roughing Mike Green in the offensive zone, a penalty that resulted in a rare 43 seconds worth of 3-on-3 hockey.


Orlov’s five-minute major penalty further taxed the penalty-killing unit of a team that was playing its third game in a span of about 66 hours, a busy stretch of hockey that immediately followed a 19-day break to accommodate the Sochi Olympic Games.


“It wears us down physically and mentally,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr of the major penalty. “We had [the Flyers] where we wanted them; we were getting pucks in, we were forechecking them, we were playing well defensively. That penalty just puts us on our heels, gives them energy, gives them life, gives them the idea that they can win the game. That changed things.”


Career Best – With his assist on Beagle’s goal, Ward now has 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) on the season. That’s a single-season career best, eclipsing his previous personal high of 35 points with the Nashville Predators in 2008-09.


Helping Hands – Green had three assists in the game, matching his single-game career best. He had three helpers in a 7-4 Washington win over Ottawa on Feb. 1, 2009 at Verizon Center.


Green ranks 17th among all NHL defensemen with 26 assists and is also 17th among all blueliners in the circuit with 33 points.


Philly Killah – All three of Orlov’s goals this season – and half of the half dozen he has scored in his 101-game NHL career – have come at the expense of the Flyers.


Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears were in action on Sunday, falling to the Charlotte Checkers for the second night in a row, 6-3. The loss was Hershey’s sixth in succession.


Jeff Taffe, Tyson Strachan and Ryan Stoa scored for Hershey, and defenseman Jack Hillen – on an injury rehab reassignment from Washington – picked up two assists to record his first AHL points since Jan. 31, 2009.


Goaltender David Leggio stopped 20 of the 25 shots he faced in a losing effort between the pipes.


The 29-21-3-4 Bears remain in ninth place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings. Hershey is now idle until Friday when it visits the Admirals in Norfolk.


By The Numbers – Carlson paced the Capitals with 27:19 in ice time … Ovechkin and Fehr each had six shots on net to lead Washington, and Ovechkin’s 15 shot attempts were the most for the Caps … Alzner led Washington with five blocked shots … Brouwer’s assist gives him 30 points (16 goals, 14 assists) on the season for the fifth consecutive season. His career high is 40, set with Chicago in 2009-10 … The Capitals won only 23 of 60 (38%) of the game’s face-offs … Giroux won 14 of 21 draws (67%) on the day … Hall’s shorthanded goal was the second of his 662-game NHL career.