Friday night’s game between the Capitals and the Devils was a must-win affair for both sides, and it was a taut, tightly played tilt. But in the end, the Devils prevailed 2-1, a loss that serves as a virtual death knell for the Capitals’ playoff hopes.
The loss extended Washington’s untimely losing streak to five straight (0-3-2) at the worst possible time.
“It’s obviously difficult to swallow a loss,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “We played a good game, a good hockey game. We had a lot of grade A chances and their goalie made some great saves. We only gave them two goals. We did a lot of good things in the game.”
The Caps got off to a strong start, and it was suggested to Washington captain Alex Ovechkin that it might have been a case of too little, too late, given the Capitals’ place in the standings and the lateness of the hour.
“It’s not late,” says Ovechkin. “But you’re right, we had a good start. We had good chances to get the lead to more than one goal but their goalie played great and we missed good opportunities. I don’t think we played a bad game tonight. It’s just that we didn’t score on our great opportunities.”
Washington had a couple of early power play chances in the game, including some overlap that resulted in a two-man advantage of 53 seconds in duration. The Caps couldn’t convert on either of those power plays, but they also efficiently killed off New Jersey’s first manpower advantage of the evening.
Just past the midpoint of the frame, the Caps drew first blood. Nicklas Backstrom got a stick on an intended New Jersey defenseman Mark Fayne’s clearing pass, and the puck glanced off Alex Ovechkin’s stick and went to Mikhail Grabovski in the high slot. Grabovski teed it up for Ovechkin, who fired it past Devils goaltender Corey Schneider to give the Caps a 1-0 lead at 10:12 of the first frame.
The Caps ran into some penalty trouble late in the first when Jason Chimera went off for hooking at 18:50. That penalty carried over into the first minute of the second period, and New Jersey earned a brief (:07) two-man advantage of its own when Joel Ward took a double minor for hi-sticking in the first minute of the second.
Washington killed off the double minor, but New Jersey used that sequence of power play time to seize momentum and dial up its puck possession game. Over an eight-minute span from late in the first period and into the second, New Jersey reeled off 16 straight shot attempts.
The Devils maintained that offensive momentum past the midpoint of the period, and Caps goalie Jaroslav Halak made some good stops to enable Washington to maintain its 1-0 lead. But just after the midpoint of the period, the Caps were guilty of icing the puck after being hemmed in their own end for a stretch of time. Oates called his timeout to give the five Washington skaters a breather, but the Caps lost the ensuing draw. Although Washington regained possession, it could not clear the puck and get a needed change in personnel. The Devils drew even just 18 seconds later.
Eric Gelinas took a shot from the left point, and the puck wended its way netward, clicking off New Jersey forward Tuomo Ruutu and past Halak to make it a 1-1 game at 12:21 of the second period.
“Little plays add up, obviously,” rues Chimera. “It’s one of those shots, it’s a seeing-eye shot. It went through, it went right through everybody and kind of went in.
“We weren’t really giving up that many bang-bang plays, they were all from the outside and that one kind of snuck through. It’s unfortunate. [Jaromir] Jagr’s line is a hard line to keep in check and we did a good job keeping them to the outside. A little wrister went through. It’s unfortunate but little plays add up.”
“We still had the puck,” laments Oates, of Ruutu’s tying tally. “We didn’t clear it. We had the puck; we didn’t get it done.”
After Schneider made an impressive glove stop on Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov’s left point shot in the penultimate minute of the second, tempers flared a bit and New Jersey’s Marek Zidlicky and Washington’s Tom Wilson headed off for matching roughing minors.
As the clock wound down in the second period with the two teams playing four to a side, the Devils were deemed guilty of having too many men on the ice. With 10.7 seconds left in the second, the Caps had a 4-on-3 power play. New Jersey won the face-off immediately following the bench minor, but a rolling puck came Ovechkin’s way with mere seconds remaining in the period. He wound up but whiffed and the two teams went to the second intermission all even at 1-1.
Washington had several seconds worth of 4-on-3 extra-man time at the outset of the third period, and some residual 5-on-4 time after that, but the Caps couldn’t manage to break the tie.
The Caps’ penalty killing outfit remained busy; it killed off a Dustin Penner interference minor in the early stages of the third period.
With just under five minutes remaining in the third, New Jersey’s fourth line scored the goal that broke the tie, and one that may ultimately doom Washington’s season. The Devils moved the puck crisply out of their own end, with Ryan Carter and Marek Zidlicky working a give-and-go play in neutral ice. Zidlicky saucered a perfect return pass to Carter, who cruised into the slot and let go of a wrist shot that beat Halak low on the glove side to give New Jersey a 2-1 lead at 15:06 of the third.
“Zidlicky made a great pass,” says Oates, “it was two feet in the air. I think when Carter shot it, [Caps defenseman Mike Green] was moving over and maybe his stick affected Jaro’s vision just a hair.”
The Caps’ best chance at a late equalizer came when Schneider stopped a Johansson shot with two and a half minutes remaining.
With only five games remaining, Washington’s tragic number is down to six and it now has three teams to climb over if it hopes to attain a wild card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
“Obviously the guys are going to be bummed out,” says Oates. “I’m proud of them because they left it on the line. It was a big game and they played hard. [It was a] great bounceback from the other night [when they lost 5-0 to Dallas]. I’m sure we’ll try and use that in some facet to get try and them jacked up for [Saturday] night [against the New York Islanders] because we play at five o’clock.”
Metropolitan Malaise – With Friday night’s loss to the Devils, the Capitals are now an abysmal 1-10-2 in their last 13 games against fellow Metropolitan Division opponents. The Caps have been outscored by a combined 43-25 in those 13 games. Washington’s lone win in that span was a 3-0 victory over the Devils at Verizon Center on Feb. 8.
After starting the season with a 9-5-1 mark in its first 15 divisional games, Washington is now 10-15-3 on the season against Metropolitan opponents with two such games remaining on its schedule.
Making Next To Nothing Out of Very Little – Oates frequently mentions to the media that he tells his team that it has to be "willing to win a 1-0 or 2-1 game," especially against certain defensively stingy opponents. Whether Washington is unwilling or unable to heed that advice isn't certain, but it rarely happens. As in two percent of the time over the last two seasons.
Adam Vingan of NBC Washington researched and Tweeted a stat late Friday night that shows how doomed the Caps are when they score two or fewer goals, and also illuminates how frequently they’ve been limited to two or fewer tallies over the past two seasons.
Including Friday night’s loss, the Caps are now 1-41-8 in the 50 games (out of 125) in which they’ve scored two or fewer goals since the start of the 2012-13 season.
Washington’s lone win when scoring two or fewer goals in that span was a 2-1 shootout triumph over the New York Islanders at Verizon Center exactly one year ago, on April 4, 2013.
Killing It – Friday was the seventh straight road game in which Washington did not surrender a power play goal. The Caps have now killed off 19 straight penalties on the road and have not surrendered a power play goal since a 6-4 loss to the Flyers on March 5 in Philadelphia.
One Is The Loneliest Number – Washington scored four goals against New Jersey on Dec. 21 of this season in the first of the four meetings between the two clubs in the 2013-14 regular season. The first three of those goals came in the second period of that game.
In the nine periods of hockey the two teams played in their three meetings since, Washington scored only three goals (excluding empty-netters). The Caps scored one goal in each game, but added a pair of empty-netters and got shutout netminding from Braden Holtby on Feb. 8 against New Jersey in their lone win over the Devils this season.
Sixty – Backstrom’s assist on Ovechkin’s first-period goal was his 60th helper of the season, and it marks the third time in his seven-year NHL career that Backstrom has achieved that milestone.
Water In The Desert – Ovechkin’s first-period goal was his first even-strength goal since Feb. 27 against the Panthers in Florida, in Washington’s first game immediately following the NHL’s Olympic break. The Caps’ captain had gone a career high 16 straight games without mustering as much as an even strength point before breaking that dry spell against the Devils in Friday’s game.
Two-Man Trouble – The Caps continue to have trouble converting on the two-man advantage. Washington has scored one goal in a dozen two-man advantage opportunities that stretch to a total length of 8:12.
The Capitals have surrendered four 5-on-3 power play goals in 11 such disadvantages totaling 6:12 in length, including the brief two-man advantage the Devils had in Friday’s game.
Shot Down – The Capitals have been outshot in 10 of their last 11 games and in 53 of their 77 games on the season. Washington is 13-7-4 on the season when it is even or better in shots on goal and it is 21-23-9 in games in which it is outshot.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears are in New England this weekend for games on Saturday in Worcester and Sunday in Bridgeport, respectively. The Bears were off on Friday night.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals entertained the Kalamazoo Wings at Santander Arena on Friday night. Although the Royals fell behind 2-0 before the first period was halfway over, Reading rallied for a 5-4 victory.
Yannick Tifu, Domenic Monardo, Greg Wolfe, Ryan Cruthers and Marvin Degon took care of the offense for the Royals. Tifu and Degon each added a pair of assists for a three-point night for both players.
Royals goaltender Brandon Anderson stopped 33 of the 37 shots he faced in the Reading nets to push his record to 23-9-1-0 on the season.
The Royals host Kalamazoo once again on Saturday night. The 44-21-2-1 Royals are now four points ahead of Kalamazoo in the chase for the best record in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference. Both teams have four regular season games remaining. The Royals have clinched the Atlantic Division title and are three points behind Alaska for the best record in the circuit.
By The Numbers – Grabovski had gone eight straight games without a point before picking up the primary assist on Ovechkin’s goal. His last point came on Jan. 14 in another 2-1 [shootout] loss to the San Jose Sharks at Verizon Center … Nine of Washington’s last 13 games have been one-goal decisions … John Carlson led the Capitals with 26:11 in ice time … Ovechkin led the Caps with four shots on goal and nine shot attempts … Backstrom won nine of 14 draws (64%) … Dmitry Orlov led the Caps with five hits and Tyson Strachan led the way for Washington with four blocked shots … Andy Greene led the Devils with 28:35 in ice time and five blocked shots.