Facing some of the league’s best puck possession clubs, the Washington Capitals pieced together a season-high six-game streak in which they pulled at least one standings point (4-0-2). So facing another such opponent on home ice shouldn’t have been a daunting task for the Caps, especially since they defeated that same opponent – the Boston Bruins – in their own barn exactly four weeks earlier.
But in a scenario that has repeated itself all too frequently this season, Washington waded into the game slowly. Goaltender Braden Holtby kept the Caps in the game for the first 20 minutes, but Washington spotted Boston a three-goal lead in the second period and eventually fell to the defending Eastern Conference champs, 4-2.
Taking so long to get into the game is enough of a sin in November. But it’s much worse when fewer than 10 games remain in the campaign and playoff berths are at stake.
“We obviously took too long to get into the game, right from the get go,” laments Caps coach Adam Oates. “Our attention to detail was lousy in the first 30 minutes. I think we were a little [bit] waiting to see how [the Bruins] were coming out, and we just – from missing passes to going on the ice not knowing the clock – [made poor] decisions, where to go, everything.”
Although the first 20 minutes of the game were scoreless, Washington survived while Boston thrived. Each team killed off a penalty in the first, but the Bruins dominated the possession game. They won 12 of the game’s 17 face-offs (71%) in the first 20 minutes, and they launched 30 shots toward the Washington cage while the Caps responded with only 14 of their own.
Just 38 seconds into the second period, the Caps got a chance to jump out in front when Boston’s Carl Soderberg was guilty of on an offensive zone tripping violation on Washington defenseman. The Caps’ power play has been hot since the Olympic break, scoring 16 times in 14 games going into Saturday afternoon’s contest. But the Bruins killed off the minor penalty, and it was Boston that drew first blood shortly thereafter.
The puck hopped over the stick of Caps defenseman Karl Alzner in the neutral zone, enabling veteran Boston sniper Jarome Iginla to break in alone on Washington goaltender Braden Holtby. The future Hall of Famer fired and scored to stake the Bruins to a 1-0 lead just 10 seconds after Soderberg was sprung.
Less than five minutes later, the Bruins got a power play of their own when Eric Fehr was sent off for hooking. Soderberg struck this time, taking a shot that was blunted somewhat but still managed to find its way through Holtby for a 2-0 Boston lead.
Forty-one seconds after the Soderberg goal, Iginla pounced again. He netted his 30th of the season to make it a 3-0 game. Against one of the league’s stingiest defensive teams, the Capitals were in a deep hole.
Washington began to get into the game after the midpoint of the middle period, and with just 10 seconds left they got some sudden life.
Fehr won a defensive zone draw, and Green led a rush into the Boston zone down the left wing side of the ice. He lofted what appeared to be a backhand timing pass to the front, where Jason Chimera was driving toward the net. The puck glanced off the stick of Boston blueliner Johnny Boychuk, and then caromed off the pad of Bruins netminder Chad Johnson. It went right to Chimera who tapped it home to make it a 3-1 game.
“I almost called timeout after the [third] goal and laid into them,” says Oates, “but I said to myself, ‘I’m going to need that timeout.’ Then we ended up getting a goal at the end of the second period, which obviously gave us life.
“But the last five minutes of the second period, we had like three grade-A chances. It was like the recipe that you’re supposed to do all of a sudden showed up and the rest of the game was solid.”
Going into the third, there was a sense that if the Caps could get the game’s next goal, they might be able to keep their points streak alive. Washington killed off a slashing minor on Chimera early in the period, then it got a window of opportunity thanks to a brilliant offensive zone shift from Fehr’s line.
Fehr and linemates Chimera and Joel Ward along with defensemen Green and Dmitry Orlov hemmed the Bruins in their own zone for more than a full minute, cycling, churning pucks, putting them towards the net and eroding the energy of the five weary Bruins who were chasing them and the puck.
Finally, Boston blueliner Andrej Meszaros was whistled for holding the stick, giving Washington its third power play chance of the game and an opportunity to close the gap to just a single goal.
“The [defensemen] were active getting in the play,” says Chimera of his line’s grinding shift. “I think the [defense] kept it in a couple of times for us there. Wardo and Fehrsie are really good on pucks and good with sticks; they batted down numerous ones down there and kind of kept it going, and threw a lot to the net there.
“We could have easily had a couple of goals out of that shift. Those are the shifts you need five-on-five. You need everyone involved and rolling, and support. That’s how you’ve got to score goals five-on-five nowadays.”
Unfortunately, the Caps couldn’t cash in on the power play. But they maintained momentum and still seemed poised to possibly pull within a goal. That was the case right up until Caps captain Alex Ovechkin was given a charging minor, an egregiously poor call that Oates later described as “terrible.”
Boston scored on the ensuing power play, Patrice Bergeron putting back a rebound of a point shot to make it a 4-1 game.
“It’s a bad call, I think,” says Chimera of the Ovechkin minor, “but you’ve got to kill it. Me and Wardo were out there for the goal and you’ve got to do a better job battling in front of the net for the rebound there. You’ve got to do a better job of lifting up sticks and clearing bodies.
“It could have been a ‘no goal’ [too]; [Soderberg] was right on top of Holts and it could have been a ‘no goal’ easily. Those are the bounces. But you can’t wait until the third period to get going against teams. We were playing good and you can’t let a call like that reverse momentum too much.”
With only 6:43 remaining at that point, it was all but over at that point. Evgeny Kuznetsov netted his second last-minute goal in as many games to account for a more respectable 4-2 final.
In what has been a familiar postgame refrain this season, the Caps rued their slow start.
“That’s a great team over there and they played great,” says Alzner of the Bruins. “At the beginning of the game we weren’t breaking out well. In the second we weren’t backchecking really well. In the third, we finally put it together. I think that we can play just as good as those guys; I think we all do. They played better than we did in the first two [periods], or at least one and a half. Against that team, it’s too little at the end.”
“I think our team has had a little bit of trouble with our starts,” notes Fehr. “I’m not sure exactly what it is. We need to find a way to get into games quicker and get the adrenaline going and try to get the momentum going our way.”
Oates was particularly vexed about the poor start. He referenced it in his answers to several different postgame questions.
“We’ve been playing good hockey lately,” says Oates. “I didn’t expect that start.
“I wasn’t happy with a lot of aspects of our game early in the game. Not just our [defense]. A lot of it. I thought our forechecking was lousy, early.
“I’m shocked at the start. I understand if a guy’s in your face and you’re under duress. But we work on it every day. If we have time and your partner’s open, put it on his tape. If you don’t, now [the Bruins] are coming [at you]. They are coming, and that’s what they’re good at.
“You never expect so many consecutive plays where you make the wrong decision, the wrong pass or a bad pass, that many. It’s been a long time since we’ve done that, and we have played good lately so I expected a way better start than we got.”
Gang Green – Washington’s forward trio of Chimera, Fehr and Ward continues to carry the mail for the Capitals when it comes to five-on-five offensive production. Including Chimera’s goal in Saturday’s game, one or more of those three forwards have been on the ice for 14 of Washington’s last 19 goals scored in five-on-five play.
What the Caps could use is a little more contribution from the rest of their lineup in five-on-five play.
Century City – Holtby appeared in the 100th game of his NHL career on Saturday against the Bruins. His NHL baptism also came against the Bruins, in relief of Michal Neuvirth in a Nov. 5, 2011 game at Verizon Center. Holtby came on in the third period of that contest with the score tied at 3-3, and he forged his first NHL victory while stopping all four shots he faced in 10:09 of work.
Holtby becomes the 11th goaltender in Capitals history to play in as many as 100 games in a Washington sweater. He is just the third of those 11 who has earned a victory in more than half of his appearances (57-31-7).
The only other Capitals goaltenders with more than 100 games played with Washington to earn victories in more than half of those appearances are Al Jensen (94-48-18 in 173 games) and Jose Theodore (62-24-12 in 104 games).
Back In The Saddle – Caps defenseman John Erskine drew back into the Washington lineup because of the absence of fellow blueliner Jack Hillen. Hillen collided with Caps captain Alex Ovechkin during the overtime session of Washington’s 5-4 shootout setback to Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Erskine had been idle since skating 5:34 in a 6-4 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia on March 5. He logged 13:51 of duty against the Bruins, including 1:50 of shorthanded ice time. Erskine also picked up his third assist of the season and his first point since Jan. 25 in the game.
Hundo Helpers – Caps right wing Troy Brouwer earned the 100th assist of his NHL career with the primary helper on Kuznetsov’s goal.
Thirty – Iginla’s second goal of the game was also his 30th of the season. He becomes the 14th player in the league to reach that plateau during the 2013-14 season. Iginla is the fourth of those 14 players to victimize Washington for his milestone goal.
Earlier this month, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz and San Jose’s Patrick Marleau each netted their 30th goal of the season at Washington’s expense. Washington has allowed those four players to score their 30th goals of the season in the Caps’ last nine games.
Iginla had a string of 11 straight seasons with 30 or more goals interrupted by the lockout of 2013-14. He has reached 30 goals for the 12th time in his career this season and now has 560 for his NHL career.
Stellar Understudy – Johnson has been brilliant in his first season as Boston’s backup netminder in 2013-14.
With his victory over the Capitals on Saturday, Johnson ran his record to 17-3-1 on the season. He sports a 2.04 GAA and a .926 save pct.
The 27-year-old Calgary native entered the season with just 10 career NHL appearances (all with the New York Rangers) and a 3-2-3 lifetime mark. Johnson is now 11-0-1 in calendar 2014. His last loss came at the hands of the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 28.
By The Numbers – John Carlson led the Capitals with 24:15 in ice time … Alex Ovechkin led the Caps with five shots on goal and a dozen shot attempts … Tom Wilson and Chris Brown led the Caps with four hits each in the game … Erskine, Green and Carlson each blocked three shots to pace Washington … Fehr won 11 of 15 draws (73%) in the game.