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Loss Weekend

March 31, 2014

It was a week ago Sunday that the Washington Capitals flew back from a triumphant week in California, buoyed by a 2-0-1 trip against elite teams that kept their 2014 Stanley Cup playoff hopes viable. But since returning from the left coast, the Caps have stumbled and/or sleepwalked their way through stretches of three games, falling in all three, but collecting a point in two.

The Caps finished off a set of back-to-back games on Sunday night in Nashville with a less than thrilling performance that resulted in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Predators, who entered the game with just one win in their last seven home games (1-5-1).

There aren’t enough games left to be too positive about only getting one point,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “Yeah, it is a point, but it’s only going to make our road harder. I thought we were just a little bit lackadaisical here and there throughout the game.

“We’ve been talking since day one about playing sixty minutes because when we all start going, it’s fun to watch. We control the play completely against every team we’ve ever played. We just have too many lapses.”

“I thought we played better today than yesterday [in a 4-2 loss to Boston],” says Caps coach Adam Oates, damning with faint praise. “There are moments where we didn’t execute, but I thought that as we got into the game we played better.”

The Caps are now down to seven games remaining in the season, and they trail eighth place Columbus by a point in the chase for the Eastern Conference’s final wild card spot. The Blue Jackets also hold a game in hand and the tiebreaker on Washington.

Although the Caps spent much of the game’s first five minutes in their own end of the ice, it was Washington that broke the seal on the scoreboard at 4:17 of the first. Nicklas Backstrom collected an errant pass in the Nashville end of the ice, and he bumped it to Mike Green, who had cruised into the right circle. Green quickly spotted Troy Brouwer near the bottom of the opposite circle, and Green put it on a tee for the Washington winger, completing a tic-tac-toe tally and staking the Caps to a 1-0 lead.

As has been the case far too often this season, the Caps couldn’t stand the prosperity. Their early lead lasted less than two minutes.

Nashville’s Mike Fisher bested the Caps’ Jay Beagle in a face-off in the Washington zone, pulling the puck back to Predators’ defenseman Shea Weber. Weber fired a shot on goal, and Washington netminder Jaroslav Halak made the save. But he couldn’t corral the rebound, and the Capitals’ defense couldn’t corral Predators forward Patric Hornqvist, who tapped it home for the 100th goal of his NHL career at 5:55 of the first.

Late in the period, the Predators took the lead. Carlson’s intended pass through the neutral zone glanced off Backstrom and back into the Washington zone, sending Hornqvist in all alone on Halak. The Preds’ winger deked and scored to make it a 2-1 game at the 18:30 mark of the first.

At that juncture of a fairly important contest for the Capitals, Nashville owned a 16-6 lead in shot attempts; this despite the fact that the Caps had the game’s only power play to that point of the contest.

The early minutes of the second period did little to compel the Caps to action. Nashville had 13 shot attempts to just two for Washington in the first nine-plus minutes of the middle period, and Halak had to make two terrific saves on Craig Smith and Hornqvist in breakaway situations to keep the Preds from opening up a multiple-goal advantage.

The Predators put themselves in peril just past the midway mark of the second when they were detected having too many men on the ice. The Caps couldn’t find the range on that extra-man opportunity, but Nashville defenseman Roman Josi took an interference minor just 10 seconds after the Preds had successfully snuffed the bench minor.

The Caps were able to cash in on the Josi transgression. Brouwer lifted a backhander over Hutton to even the game at 2-2, getting help from Marcus Johansson and Backstrom on the goal.

Even though the Capitals had the only two power plays of the period, the Preds owned a 17-13 advantage in shot attempts in the middle period and were up 33-22 in that regard after the first 40 minutes of the game.

Nashville regained its lead at 8:23 of the third. Matt Cullen gained the Washington line on a rush down the right wing side. He dropped the puck for Fisher, who in turn dropped it for Weber. From just above the right circle, Weber wound up and fired and his blast eluded Halak on the blocker side to give the home team a 3-2 lead.

Three and a half minutes after Weber staked the Preds to a lead, Nashville rookie Calle Jarnkrok slashed Beagle to give the Caps their fourth power play of the evening. Washington wasted little time in tying the game.

Only 23 seconds after Jarnkrok was seated, Backstrom took a pass from Carlson and waited for Johansson to set a screen in front. Backstrom then snapped off a shot that beat Hutton and made it a 3-3 game at 12:20 of the third.

Backstrom’s goal enabled the Caps to gain a point in a game in which they trailed in the third period, but Washington needed the second point, too. They didn’t get it. The Preds prevailed in the skills contest to deny the Caps and hand them their third straight setback.

“We knew coming in here tonight the magnitude of the game,” says Brouwer. “[We were] treating it as a must-win if we want to continue a playoff push here. [Saturday] against Boston we were flat; we were real dead coming out at the beginning of the game.

“Tonight, a little bit different story. We lost our way halfway through the game and they took it to us. We had a tough time recovering and because of that we had to come from behind for most of the game where we wanted to dictate the pace, dictate the game and make them chase us tonight.”

“I thought we deserved the win tonight,” says Preds coach Barry Trotz. “We managed the pucks well; we turned that into a three-quarter ice game on them. I think they only had 22 attempted shots after two periods, and I think that we could have put the game away with the breakaway that [Hornqvist] had when it was 2-1. I think that we really could have done some damage there.

“Then we took a couple of penalties and I think that changed all the momentum and got it a little more even. Then there’s their power play, which is number one, it’s so dangerous, with some much skill, and they can really execute. That was the one area that kept them in the game; I think we were the better team five-on-five.”

The Caps have scored only 15 five-on-five goals in their last 13 games (5-5-3), and Caps captain Alex Ovechkin failed to record a single point at even strength in his team’s 15 games during the month of March.

Thanks to the magic malleability made possible by the NHL’s unique policy of rewarding teams with standings points for losing games, there are two ways to look at Washington’s recent performance. The Caps have now earned at least a point in seven of their last eight games (4-1-3). They’ve also won only one of their last five games (1-1-3) and needed a shootout to nail that one down.

Either way, the Capitals remain on the outside of the playoff picture and looking in. The calendar now turns to April for the Caps, who will take Monday off before hosting the Dallas Stars at Verizon Center on Tuesday.

The 500 Club – Green appeared in his 500th career NHL contest on Sunday in Nashville. He is the senior-most member of the Washington blueline brigade from a standpoint of NHL experience.

Green is only the ninth defenseman to play in as many as 500 games in a Capitals sweater. He follows Calle Johansson, Rod Langway, Kevin Hatcher, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Sylvain Cote, Scott Stevens and Joe Reekie in attaining that distinction.

Green skated 34:08 in Sunday’s game, establishing a single-game career high in that category in the process. The contest was the first in which Green has logged as many as 30 minutes since he skated 31:01 in the home opener against Calgary on Oct. 3.

Green logged 32:04 of that Sunday workload at even strength. That’s seven minutes more than any player on either side skated while the sides were even in the game.

Brouwer Play – With his two tallies in Sunday’s game, Brouwer has 23 for the season. That’s a single-season career best for the Caps’ right winger, whose previous high was 22, established with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10.

Brouwer has scored a dozen of those goals on the power play, and he is second on the team in that category this season. He scored 10 power play goals in 129 games in his first two seasons with the Capitals, and has now exceeded that total in 75 games this season.

Back-To-Back Blues – Washington has now played 15 of its 17 sets of back-to-back games this season. The Capitals are 11-11-8 in back-to-back games in 2013-14, and they’re now 5-5-5 in the back half of those sets of games.

But recently the Caps dealt with diminishing returns in back-to-back tilts. Washington is 0-5-1 in its last three sets of back-to-backs, all of them coming in the month of March.

The Caps pulled at least a point out of each of their first dozen sets of back-to-back games this season, posting an 11-6-7 record in those games and a 5-3-4 mark in the second night of those sets.

Back In The Saddle – For just the second time in the last two months, Caps center Mikhail Grabovski was back in the Washington lineup for Sunday’s game. Grabovski suffered an ankle injury in a Jan. 24 game against the Devils in New Jersey, and he appeared in just one game since. That one game – a Feb. 27 contest against the Panthers in Florida – turned out to be a short night for Grabovski. He skated just 2:20 in four shifts that night before leaving because he had re-aggravated the injury.

Grabovski made it through the night on Sunday, skating 15:49 over 20 shifts. He won seven of 13 draws (54%) in the game.

Going into the game, he was somewhat concerned over his conditioning after having missed the better part of the last two months of action, but Grabovski felt good at night’s end.

“In overtime, it felt pretty good,” says Grabovski. “The ice was not that good tonight, so it was harder to skate through, but every shift I skated better.”

He started the night pivoting the fourth line and ended it skating the left side of the second line.

“I’m playing wing,” says Grabovski of the mid-game position shift, “so for me it is a new position, but we support each other and try to play simple. I think with a couple of shifts we did pretty well.”

Line Dancing – Oates tweaked his lines in the second period of Sunday’s game. Grabovski moved from the middle of the fourth line to the left side of a unit with Jay Beagle and Alex Ovechkin. Evgeny Kuznetsov slid from the left side of a trio with Backstrom and Brouwer to the middle of the fourth line with Dustin Penner and Tom Wilson. Johansson moved from the left side of the Beagle-Ovechkin duo to the portside of the Backstrom-Brouwer unit. 

The Gang Green trio of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward remained intact.

“I didn’t think some of the guys were going on all cylinders as a line,” explains Oates. “And just looking for a little spark to try to get that rhythm.”

Clune Show – Shortly after the eight-minute of the first, Caps defenseman Patrick Wey collided with Predators’ tough guy Rich Clune along the left wing wall near the Washington bench. This type of body contact that occurs dozens and dozens of times nightly in rinks around the circuit wasn’t okay with Clune. He quickly dropped his mitts and challenged the Caps’ rookie blueliner, who unwisely acquiesced.

Including preseason scraps, Sunday’s fight was the 160th bout at the professional level for Clune since he turned pro in 2007-08. For Wey, it was his first pro fight ever and his second fight at any level. The first came in 2008-09 when he was playing in the USHL.

As you’d expect, it was a mismatch from the get go. 

Almost before the gloves hit the ice, Clune was unleashing a volley of fists at Wey’s head. The Caps defenseman hung in as long as he could, but then Clune caught Wey with an uppercut that dropped the rookie to the ice.

Wey left the game and did not return.

But that was all Clune wanted, a fight against a first-year pro who had never scrapped at this level previously and who was playing in his eighth career NHL game. When Wilson took Clune to task and challenged him to a fight later in the first period, the Preds winger went wallflower.

“At the end of the day,” explains Wilson, “I just wanted [Clune] to defend his actions. I know he probably felt a little bit guilty about it and no one likes to see a guy go down. I was just giving him a chance to defend himself and see if he wanted to go again, because at the end of the day it’s defending a teammate. That’s just what I was trying to do.”

“He didn’t feel he had to fight. He said last time [the Caps and Predators] played he had to instigate a fight in order to get me to fight and put our team on the power play, but I hadn’t knocked anybody out earlier in the game. It’s a bit of a different circumstance.”

For the record, the last time the Caps and Predators met was Dec. 7 in Washington. Eleven seconds after the Caps opened up a 3-0 first-period lead on Karl Alzner’s first goal of the season, Clune went after Wilson and goaded him into a fight in an obvious attempt to shift the momentum of the game. For his trouble, Clune received an unsportsmanlike conduct minor that put his team on the penalty kill and a sound whipping from Wilson.

No doubt it was the latter result that Clune was most interested in avoiding when he backed down to Wilson’s invitation on Sunday.

Only A Third – Sunday’s game was the 75th this season for the Capitals. Washington has won exactly one-third (25) of those games in regulation.

Only four of the 30 NHL teams have recorded fewer regulation wins than Washington this season: Edmonton (23), the New York Islanders (22), Florida (19) and Buffalo (14). 

Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears had a fruitful weekend, winning a pair of home games. The Bears drubbed Albany 4-1 on Friday night at Giant Center, and on Saturday they followed that up with a 2-1 win over St. John’s in a shootout that was almost as long as the actual game that preceded it.

With the two victories, Hershey has pulled to within a single point of eighth-place Norfolk for the final berth in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings.

Hershey plays its next five games on the road, starting on Wednesday when it visits Portland. The Bears play seven of their nine remaining regular season games on the road, including a pair against the Admirals in Norfolk on April 16 and 18.

Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals also forged a 4-1 home ice win on Friday night, theirs coming over the Elmira Jackals. A night later, the two teams met again in Elmira with the Royals once again prevailing, this time by a 6-3 count. The win was the Royals’ 11th straight over Elmira.

With six games remaining in the regular season, the Royals have secured a berth in the 2014 Kelly Cup playoffs and they’ve all but clinched the Atlantic Division title, owning an 11-point lead in the standings over the second-place Wheeling Nailers.

Reading is two points ahead of Kalamazoo for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

By The Numbers – Backstrom led the Caps with five shots on net … Wilson led Washington with four hits … Carlson led the Capitals with three blocked shots … Beagle won six of eight (75%) and Backstrom 13 of 21 (62%) face-offs in the game.