It’s been a while since the Washington Capitals have scored a goal on the road; it’s been even longer since they’ve scored a five-on-five goal away from the District. On Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the Caps absorbed a second straight whitewash defeat on the road, this one by a 2-0 count to the Pens and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
Washington has gone 126 minutes without a goal on the road, and it has failed to score a five-on-five tally on the road in a span of 189:07.
The Caps came out flat in Tuesday’s game and took too long to get into the game, a problem that has vexed them in each of their last three road contests. In the first 40 minutes of play in its three road games over the last week, Washington has been outscored by a combined total of 7-1 and outshot by a combined margin of 76-28 in those 120 minutes of hockey.
“We came out flat at the start,” admits Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We weren’t able to get much on the forecheck. We were kind of putting the pucks behind their net where Fleury could play them and break them out rather than us getting in on the forecheck. So because of that, we weren’t able to sustain a forecheck and it’s tough to feel like you’re into the game when you’re in your [defensive] zone for the majority of the first period.”
The first period went by quickly; there were only two whistles in the first 14-plus minutes. After an offside call on Washington just 39 seconds into the game, the Caps and Penguins proceeded to play the next 13:45 without a single stoppage. The pace and tempo were good for a couple of teams that had played and traveled the previous night. Although there weren’t many prime scoring chances on either side during that span, the Caps spent too much time in their own end of the ice.
The Penguins drew first blood late in the first frame when the Caps had some difficulty clearing their end of the ice. Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov twice had the puck on his stick, but on both occasions it went right to Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. On the second of those occasions, Malkin passed to Matt Niskanen at the right point, and Niskanen put a low shot toward the net just as Pens forward Jussi Jokinen was cruising through the slot area. Jokinen got his stick on the shot and redirected it past Washington goaltender Jaroslav Halak for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead at 16:41 of the first.
Orlov and defense partner Mike Green had both been on the ice for 61 seconds at the time of the tally. That shift is longer than you’d like it to be when playing a second game in as many nights, but the shift was longer than it needed to be because of the failed attempts to clear the zone.
“It was fast-paced hockey and it was kind of back and forth,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of the first period. “The giveaways were not a product necessarily of [the Penguins’] pressure. They were more a product of we didn’t put it on the guy’s tape. That’s a simple pass and you’ve got to put it on the guy’s tape. And if you don’t have it, you put it up the wall. The first goal they got, we had it on our forehand with no one on us and we just [gave it away], twice. And I know you’re tired, but you’re tired because you gave it away. We’ve all got to help each other. At the end of the day, too many guys gave the puck away and it allowed them an easy period.”
The Caps had their best chance of the period with about two minutes remaining when Pens goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped Caps winger Jason Chimera’s shot from the slot in a one-on-one situation.
“We were on our heels the whole first period, no question,” says Oates. “Jaro played great and gave us a chance. We turned it over too many times; probably a little hangover from [Monday] night at the beginning of the game. First intermission, we talked about it after and I thought the second period we got it together and started playing better hockey.”
Oates attributed his team’s slow start in Tuesday’s game to its futile attempt at a last-minute rally in Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Penguins at Verizon Center.
“I think it’s a little hangover from last night. We obviously tried very hard at the end of [Monday’s] game to try to tie that up and I think we were sluggish at the start of this game because of it.”
Washington was outplayed thoroughly in the first half of the middle period. Pittsburgh owned a 14-2 lead in shot attempts over that span, and one of Washington’s two attempts during that stretch came when the Caps went shorthanded for having too many men on the ice at 3:25 of the period.
The Caps turned the tables in the second half of the second, directing 13 shot attempts at Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury while Pittsburgh responded with only four of its own in the final nine minutes of the stanza.
Washington’s best chance at drawing even came when Evgeny Kuznetsov’s bid for his first NHL goal glanced off the left post at 10:59.
Down by a single goal going into the third period, the Caps put together what was easily their best period of the game. But as was the case last Wednesday in Philadelphia and last Thursday in Boston, it was too little and too late. The Caps got a power play chance when Niskanen went off for hi-sticking at 8:02, but a phantom hi-sticking call on Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom robbed the Caps of the final 52 seconds of that man-advantage opportunity.
The Caps would get one more power play chance with 4:08 remaining, but by then they were in a two-goal hole. That’s because Pens captain Sidney Crosby scored to give the Pens a 2-0 lead at 14:12 of the third.
Pittsburgh winger Lee Stempniak jimmied the puck away from Orlov along the wall near the Penguins’ line, and in doing so he sprung Crosby on a 2-on-1. Crosby’s wrist shot beat Halak to the stick side to double the depth of Washington’s deficit.
“I kind of thought he was going to pass it and then he shot it,” laments Halak. “He kind of surprised me. But it is what it is. I gave up that goal and when you’re in a hole, it’s tough to get out.”
The loss drops the Capitals to sixth place in the Metropolitan Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference standings with just 15 games remaining in the season. The Caps are three points south of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s got to be urgency right now,” says Brouwer. “It has to have been for the last few games already. Aside from our starts, we’ve come on late in games and tried to give ourselves opportunities to win late in games. But when you’re coming from behind against teams like Pittsburgh and Boston, you’ve got an uphill battle. It’s real tough to come back on these teams when they get a lead on you. And for us who are desperately trying to make the playoffs here, we have to beat these teams that are already in the playoffs to try to jump over them and get a spot when the playoffs start.”
The urgency that Brouwer speaks of is noticeably lacking. Washington has one win in its last six games (1-4-1), and it needed three goals in a span of about five minutes to erase a two-goal, third-period deficit to get that victory, a 3-2 triumph over the Phoenix Coyotes at Verizon Center on Saturday.
“The first period we actually started right away pretty badly,” admits Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who is without a point now in five of his last six games. “They controlled the game and we had only one chance; Chimmer had an opportunity, almost a breakaway.
“But after that we got lucky. [Halak] played well; he stopped the puck and kept us in the game. The last 30 minutes I think we played our game; we put the puck deep, started to make a cycle and find the guy behind the net. Our [defense] got some shots.
“I think maybe we were just a little bit tired, maybe a little sleepy. The situation we were just not ready for it in the first period. It’s hard. The team feels great, we have a good mood, but as soon as they dropped the puck we were kind of shocked. They put pressure on our [defense] and we didn’t handle it. We made a mistake and they scored.”
First Blood – The team scoring the game’s first goal has gone on to victory in 17 of Washington’s last 20 contests.
Spotlight – Washington is now 2-9 this season in nationally televised games. The capitals have been outscored by a combined total of 47-29 in those 11 contests.
Zero – The Caps are now 0-22-5 this season when scoring two or fewer goals in a game.
Double Duty – Starting for the second time in as many nights, Halak was solid in goal for Washington. He was beaten on a deflection in the first, and Crosby notched his 31st of the season on him in the third, but he kept the Capitals close until they could get their legs and he gave them a chance to win.
“I was kind of surprised,” says Halak, of getting a second starting assignment in as many nights. “But it doesn’t make any difference for a goalie to play, whether we have two nights in a row or not. I was happy at the same time that I got the call, but it’s too bad we couldn’t get two points tonight.”
Halak has extremely solid numbers over the course of his career when starting the second of back-to-back games in situations in which he started both ends of those sets of games.
Including Tuesday’s loss to the Pens, Halak is now 13-8 in the second half of back-to-backs on the 21 occasions in which he has played both nights. He has four shutouts, a 1.95 GAA and a .930 save pct. in those games.
“I feel good,” Halak says, after starting three games in the last four nights for Washington. “There are no issues as far as my conditioning level. We all work hard to get to this point. We just need to start playing a little better, a little more desperation hockey and try to get even the gritty goals. Right now we need to score some like that.”
Nemesis – Crosby has 50 points to Ovechkin’s 33 in the 29 head-to-head meetings between the Capitals and the Penguins over the years. Pittsburgh owns a 20-7-2 record in those 29 games.
Whitewashington – Fleury’s shutout is his second of the season over the Capitals; he blanked them by a 4-0 count in Washington on Nov. 20. The Penguins netminder has allowed just 11 goals in his last seven starts against the Caps. Fleury has three career shutouts against the Caps and is 16-7-2 in 26 career appearances against Washington.
By The Numbers – Tuesday’s win was the Penguins’ eighth in a row over the Capitals … Pittsburgh improved to 19-5-1 this season against Metropolitan Division opponents. The Capitals are now 10-14-3 against Metro teams … Green led the Caps with 23:22 in ice time … Chimera led Washington with six shots on net … Ovechkin had 10 shot attempts, but only two shots on goal … Brouwer paced Washington with six hits … Washington was an abysmal 15-for-47 (32%) on the dot in the game … Sixteen of Pittsburgh’s 18 skaters had at least one shot on goal … Brooks Orpik led the Penguins with seven hits … Rob Scuderi paced the Pens with four blocked shots … Marcel Goc won eight of 10 (80%) face-offs in the game and Crosby won 15 of 23 (65%).