With less than two weeks remaining in the NHL’s 2013-14 regular season, two teams that started the day a point shy of a playoff spot in their respective conferences met head to head at Verizon Center on Tuesday night. For the first 20 minutes, the game between the Washington Capitals and the Dallas Stars had at least the vague feel of a contest between a couple of desperate teams.
But after scoring twice in 34 seconds in the middle of the middle frame to take a commanding 3-0 lead, Dallas ran away and hid and the Caps were powerless to stop them. The Stars handed Washington a stunning 5-0 whitewashing, a setback that deals the Capitals’ fading playoff hopes a harsh blow.
“There wasn’t one part of the game tonight that was good enough,” says Caps forward Eric Fehr, “five-on-five, power play, penalty kill, everything. It looked like we weren’t prepared. We talked about everything. But it looked more like a preseason game for us than a game that we needed to win to make the playoffs.”
“We make bad decisions and we make mistakes,” laments caps Captain Alex Ovechkin. “And we can’t win like that.”
The Caps held their own in the first frame, but a disturbing glimpse of things to come came when Washington’s first power play chance of the game yielded two Dallas breakaways in the first 32 seconds of the man advantage. Caps defenseman John Carlson took a slashing minor to quell the second of those bids, ending the Washington power play.
Dallas got all the offense it would need at the 15:08 mark of the first thanks to some brilliant bladework from Tyler Seguin. Washington won an offensive zone draw, but Carlson’s pass down the right wing wall was picked off and the Stars came up ice in transition. Caps goalie Jaroslav Halak made saves on shots from Valeri Nichushkin and then Seguin. Caps center Nicklas Backstrom collected the rebound of the second shot and tried to backhand the puck around the corner and up the wall to Halak’s right. Seguin batted the puck out of midair and directly to Jamie Benn in the left circle. As Benn gloved it down and lined up a shot, Seguin went directly toward the net.
The Stars were aligned for this one.
Benn blasted away; Seguin and stick arrived at the perfect point of the puck’s path, deftly deflecting it past Halak to make it a 1-0 game.
The contest spiraled out of control in a span of 34 fateful seconds in the middle of the second. Dallas defenseman Alex Goligoski took an outlet from Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen and fired a dart of a pass on the diagonal and on the dime, right to Alex Chiassson at the Washington line. Chaisson and Ray Whitney were both beyond the last layer of Capitals on the ice, giving the Stars a two-on-oh break. Whitney finished with a flourish, tucking the puck behind Halak to double the Dallas advantage.
Thirty-four seconds later, Chiasson occupied three Caps in front of the net while Dustin Jeffrey was left alone to pounce on the rebound and bang it home for a 3-0 lead. That goal prompted Oates to hook Halak for the first time since the goaltender came to the District in a March 5 swap with the Sabres.
Braden Holtby came on in relief, and he was forced to face down a three-on-one Dallas rush during his first minute on the ice. Benn’s shot bounced off the side of the net, preventing the Stars from adding a fourth goal. Less than a minute after that, the Caps went shorthanded on a Joel Ward slashing offense.
For the remainder of the game, the Caps had all four wheels on the rumble strips.
Washington finished the night with 35 shots on goal, but Lehtonen saw every shot cleanly. There were few second chances of note for the Caps, and only five of those 35 shots on goal came from inside 20 feet.
The first of those rare Caps shots from inside 20 feet was an Ovechkin shot from 11 feet that came just 15 seconds ahead of the first Dallas goal of the game. The next one came almost exactly a period later; it was a wrist shot from Fehr that came from 10 feet away at 14:38 of the second.
In between those two Washington tries, Dallas scored three goals. All of them came from inside a dozen feet. All five Stars goals in the game came from inside 15 feet.
“I thought we had a real good first period,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “[The Stars] get a pretty lucky break on the goal. Backy tries to go by Seguin and [Seguin] knocks it out of the air and it goes right to [Benn] and then he tips it by Jaro. But I thought we had a very good first period. The second period was fine until we made a bad change. They got a goal from that and it seemed like after that it took the wind out of our sails.
“We’re all a group. I said to the guys in the second intermission, ‘You know what, we’re down and if we come back - we have before, we could – we can’t come back playing wrong. If somehow we make the playoffs and we play like this who are we kidding?
“We have to figure out a way to get better together. It is just us collectively in here.’ Obviously it’s very disappointing.”
The Standings Story – While Washington got nothing on the night and has now collected only two of a possible eight points in its last four games, four of the teams the Caps are jockeying with for playoff position each earned at least a point in Tuesday’s action.
Toronto earned a pair of points – and snapped an eight-game losing streak – with a win over Calgary while Philadelphia, Columbus and New Jersey were each awarded a point for losing certain types of hockey games, per NHL policy.
The Capitals have slipped into 10th place, two points behind the eighth-place Blue Jackets, who also have a game in hand. Washington is now only four points ahead of Carolina, the 13th place team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference standings.
Washington has now lost four straight games (0-2-2) since returning from an uplifting 2-0-1 California trip in late March. The Capitals’ four-game slide is the longest current losing streak in the NHL among teams that have not yet been mathematically eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff contention.
“We had points in seven out of eight games until tonight,” notes Oates. “So you’ve got to be doing something right. We had a real tough trip and played well. We didn’t have a great game against Boston but in the other games we played pretty decent hockey. And tonight unfortunately it was only 20 minutes.”
Washington does have points in seven of its last nine games. But the Capitals have also won only one of their last six, and playoff dreams cannot be cobbled with such a meager diet of points at this stage of the campaign, not when you’re on the outside looking in.
Just over two years ago, the Caps suffered a similarly embarrassing home ice loss at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres, a 5-1 defeat that left the Caps two points behind Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. But after that March 27, 2012 loss to the Sabres, the Caps finished up with four wins in their last five games. In the process, they leapt over both Buffalo and Ottawa to finish seventh and earn a first-round date with the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
There are two significant differences between that situation and Washington’s current one. Two years ago, the Caps had five games remaining and only one team to climb over while the 2013-14 edition has six game left but must now leapfrog a pair of teams to ascend into playoff position. Five points separate five teams in the chase for the two Eastern Conference wild card berths.
Detroit (84 points) and Columbus (83) currently occupy the wild card spots with Toronto (82), Washington (81) and New Jersey (80) follow. The Caps’ next game is Friday against the Devils in New Jersey. That date with the Devils now qualifies as a “must win” game because a loss to the Devils would result in another game off the calendar and another team to climb over.
“Just a week ago I thought we were playing the best hockey we have [played] in years,” rues Carlson. “But it seems like something always knocks us down a peg and we certainly don’t need that. As a team, thought we probably needed all seven [remaining games] to get in.
“Now, we have no choice. It’s definitely probably going to be a win out situation.”
Washington’s “tragic number” has now dipped to 10. Any combination of points gained by the eighth-place team and those points not gained by the Capitals will result in their mathematical elimination.
Whitewashington – Lehtonen earned his 30th win of the season and the shutout was his fourth of the season and the second of his career against Washington. Both of those Lehtonen shutouts of the Capitals occurred at Verizon Center. Back on Feb. 2, 2008, Lehtonen and his Atlanta Thrashers teammates shutout the Caps, 2-0.
Dallas has now won five of its last six games and Lehtonen has started all six. He has not been, um, letting ‘em in. Lehtonen has a 1.67 GAA and a .950 save pct. in those last half dozen starts.
“I just try to stay extra calm and wait for the players to make their moves,” says the veteran Dallas goaltender. “I’m fortunate to have a few good games in a row here and hopefully I can keep it going. It’s fun playing when there’s a lot on the line and every game is so huge. We just have to keep taking this one game at a time and try to win the next one.”
Carry Fourth – Dallas’ fourth line was responsible for much of the offensive damage done to the Caps on Tuesday.
Chiasson had three assists in an economical 10:11 of ice time. Whitney had a goal and an assist in 11:51 of work on the night.
Jeffrey netted his first two goals of the season and his first in 28 games while punching in for just 8:07. Jeffrey skated six seconds while the Stars were shorthanded and netted his first shorthanded goal since Jan. 20, 2012, which was also the date of Jeffrey’s most recent two-goal game in the NHL.
“We came out well and they had a couple pushes at different times of the game,” says Whitney, a longtime Caps killer who now has 56 points (21 goals, 35 assists) in 62 career games against Washington, “but I thought we handled that well. We played a fast game tonight and we got a lot of chances. We had a lot of two-on-ones and we even had a two-on-none, so it’s not often you see that many scoring chances.”
By The Numbers – Mike Green paced Washington skaters with 25:01 in ice time … Fehr won seven of his 11 face-offs (63) in the game and was the only Caps player to end the night without a minus next to his name … Carlson’s five shots on goal and nine shot attempts led the Caps … John Erskine, Troy Brouwer and Tom Wilson each had three hits to top the Capitals … Karl Alzner led the Caps with three blocked shots … Goligoski was a plus-4 and he led the Stars with five blocked shots in the contest.