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The One That Got Away

April 17, 2014

Less than 24 hours after a hopeful season ended with dashed hopes and their first playoff miss in the last seven seasons, the 2013-14 edition of the Washington Capitals reconvened one last time at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. Monday’s session was a somber one; the Caps were in Arlington merely to clean out their lockers and sort through the ashes and rubble of a season that got away from them.


Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the campaign was that many of the issues that led to the team’s failure were evident early in the season, but weren’t fixed or addressed satisfactorily. Several of those same issues that plagued the team in October lingered late into the season, ultimately undoing the team’s late bid for a playoff berth.


Washington started the 2013-14 season on Oct. 1 in Chicago against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. After a stirring and inspiring banner-raising ceremony, the Caps went blow-for-blow with the champs for the first half of the game. Chicago scored, Washington answered. Chicago scored again, and Washington answered again.


But the time that passed between Washington’s first goal of the season and Chicago’s answering tally was a mere 24 seconds. That was the first of 29 times this season in which Washington was victimized by a goal against within two minutes or less after scoring a goal of its own. That means that nearly 13 percent of the time the Caps scored this season, they surrendered a goal against within the next 120 seconds.


Although the Caps trailed 3-2 going into the third period of the season opener in the Windy City, they tied the game in the first minute of the third and took a 4-3 lead at 5:16 of the third when Mikhail Grabovski completed the hat trick in his Capitals debut.


By night’s end however, the Caps were headed home without a point. Brandon Saad scored for the Hawks at 7:55 and Johnny Oduya lit the lamp at 13:53. A Marian Hossa empty-netter in the final minute was Chicago’s third unanswered goal, and it sent the Caps to a 6-4 opening night setback.


The Hawks fired 34 shots on the Washington net that night; it was the first of 61 games in which the Caps would permit 30 or more shots on goal in 2013-14. That’s up from 35 such games in 2010-11.


“I think they push the pace as well as any team in the league,” said Caps forward Brooks Laich of the Blackhawks that night, “and that’s going to be the identity of our team. too. [It was] 4-4 with six minutes left, it’s a pretty good hockey game. Chances both ways, teams are making plays. We gave them a few too many chances; I think we’re going to get better, clean some areas up. I thought we came into a tough environment and played a very good hockey game. We just didn’t get the result.”


Two nights later, the Caps came home to host the Calgary Flames in Washington’s home opener at Verizon Center. Washington dug a 3-0 first period hole for itself, beginning a recurring pattern of sluggish starts to games that became another ongoing and vexing trait of the ’13-14 Capitals. To their credit, the Caps rebounded to earn a 5-4 shootout win over the Flames, but they also allowed a goal against within two minutes of their first tally in that tilt.


That was the first of 10 shootout wins for Washington in ’13-14. Victories achieved in the postgame skills competition are watered down and don’t count for as much in the NHL standings, and more than a quarter of the Caps’ triumphs during the season were gained in that fashion.


At season’s end, several players mentioned the team’s inability to put together a lengthy winning streak as they seemed to be able to do multiple times in previous campaigns.


“We had a few winning streaks that were three, maybe four games,” noted Caps right wing Troy Brouwer in the aftermath of Sunday’s season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning, “not very many especially when you have a couple four-, five-game losing streaks, an eight-game losing streak. You have to counter balance those with some winning streaks as well.


“We were never able to kind of get into a rhythm, throw together a good run of games, collect and stockpile points at any one time, we had to battle for them in little chunks here and there. As a result, we are handing out our jerseys and going home for the summer today.”


The 2013-14 Capitals couldn’t stand prosperity. Anytime they had the makings or beginnings of one of those longer winning streaks Brouwer referred to, they crumbled.


Washington took a modest three-game winning streak into Oct. 26. But once again, the Caps turned in a dismal first period and spotted the Flames a 3-0 lead before falling 5-2. Through their first 11 games of the season, the Capitals were outscored 12-6 in the first frame.


"The start, we weren't ready for it,” said Caps captain Alex Ovechkin after the game in Calgary. “They jumped on us right away, scored first shift. They had momentum and we kept making mistakes in our zone.

"I don't think we jump in right away. Something has to be happening. We have to score or there needs to be a big play by a goalie. We were a little sleepy out there tonight."

That four-game trip through western Canada ended in Vancouver on Oct. 28. Grabovski scored early in the third period to break a 1-1 tie, but again the Caps couldn’t close the deal. The Canucks pulled even only 61 seconds later and they scored the go-ahead goal less than three minutes after that.


When Washington took a 3-2 shootout decision over the Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center on Nov. 7, the Caps owned their first four-game winning streak of the season, and they brought it out west on a two-games-in-two-nights jaunt to Phoenix and Denver, respectively.


The Caps took a 3-1 lead into the third period against the Coyotes, but squandered a lengthy 5-on-3 power play chance early in the third. Phoenix scored twice in the last 3:26 of regulation to erase Washington’s two-goal, third-period lead. The Coyotes won it in a shootout, ending the Caps’ winning streak.


In Denver the next night, the Caps were once again absent in the first period and needed Holtby to keep the game close. Washington was on the short end of a 22-8 disparity in first-period shot attempts, but was only down 1-0 after the first period.


When Joel Ward scored at 15:48 of the second, the Caps were back in business. But the Avs needed less than 30 seconds to regain the lead, and Colorado rolled to a 4-1 win.


“That needs to be addressed,” said Brouwer, speaking of Washington’s tendency to surrender goals soon after scoring them. “We need to come out with a better effort right after a goal.


“It’s a tough building to try and get momentum in and I thought we did there, and we gave it back right away and weren’t able to get it the rest of the night. We’ve just got to be tighter on those; we’ve got to make sure pucks get deep and we’ve got to make sure we keep momentum and carry it over into the next [shift].”


For the second night in a row in the Colorado contest, the Caps failed to convert a lengthy two-man advantage situation. For the second straight season, Washington finished with just one 5-on-3 goal scored in 2013-14.


Immediately after returning from that trip, the Caps reeled off three straight wins. The third of those was a 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues, who were off to a 13-2-3 start. That victory moved the Caps briefly into the top spot in the Metropolitan Division for the first and only time all season, just ahead of their next opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins.


Washington was never in that contest, falling behind early and dropping a 4-0 decision to the Pens. It was the second of six shutout losses suffered on home ice in 2013-14, the Caps’ most since they were blanked nine times at Capital Centre in their inaugural 1974-75 season.


The loss to Pittsburgh set off a four-game losing streak. The fourth of those losses was a 6-4 home ice defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators. Washington led 3-1 after the first 20 minutes of that game.


“We saw a very good hockey team in the first period with 18 shots and three goals and did a lot of things right,” said Laich after the loss to Ottawa, “and for the rest of the game we saw a very bad hockey team. Bad decisions, bad penalties, getting outworked. We looked very unstructured in the last 40 minutes, and that’s unfortunate because that was one of our best first periods of the season.”


Two nights after that setback to the Senators, a fateful event occurred that would have repercussions over the remainder of the campaign.


Prior to his scheduled Nov. 29 start against the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center, Caps goaltender Michal Neuvirth accidentally stepped on a puck as he went on the ice for warm-ups. Neuvirth suffered a lower body injury in the process, forcing Holtby into action on short notice and necessitating the recall of netminder Philipp Grubauer from AHL Hershey.


Holtby won a set of back-to-back starts that weekend, besting the Canadiens and the New York Islanders. The Caps started December with a 4-1 loss to Carolina, a game in which Grubauer came on in relief of Holtby. Holtby started and beat Nashville on Dec. 7, and Grubauer earned his first NHL win in his first start of the season a night later against the Rangers in New York.


At that point, the Caps had won four of their previous five games, and Holtby had been in net for three of those wins. He started on Dec. 10 against Tampa Bay at Verizon Center, but was pulled with the Caps down 3-0. Mike Green committed four minor penalties in a stretch of five shifts over a span of just 9:28, but Ovechkin scored four times and Nicklas Backstrom had a five-point night to propel the Caps to a thrilling 6-5 shootout win in arguably the most memorable home game of the season.


Ovechkin’s fourth goal of the night came in the final minute of regulation.


“He is a pure sniper,” said Oates of Ovechkin. “I mean, the fourth goal with the ice conditions at that time, the length of the pass and the weight on the pass - that’s an incredible shot. It really is. That’s why he’s a superstar.”


Another three-game winning streak was halted though, as Washington succumbed to the Panthers in Florida in its next outing. They were lackluster for long stretches of that 3-2 shootout loss.


“It was the worst we’ve played in our own end for a long time,” noted Caps coach Adam Oates after the game in South Florida.


Beginning with the game against the Panthers, Grubauer started eight of the next 10 games, even though Neuvirth returned to the active roster during the middle of that stretch of contests.


Instead of returning Grubauer – who played very well during his NHL stints this season – to Hershey, the Caps anointed him the No. 1 netminder and suddenly relegated Holtby and Neuvirth to dual backup status.


Although Holtby had started 12 of Washington’s 15 November games and had gone 8-3-1 with a 2.35 GAA and a .933 save pct., he was suddenly relegated to backup status.


Holtby made just four starts in 18 games at one point. When Neuvirth got the net on Jan. 10 against Toronto, it was his first start in seven weeks.


From the time Neuvirth returned to active duty until the Caps finally alleviated the netminding logjam and returned Grubauer to Hershey on Jan. 20, Washington won only four of 15 games (4-6-5).


Included in that stretch were consecutive games – against New Jersey on Dec. 21 and Anaheim on Dec. 23 – in which the Caps squandered two-goal leads and lost games on home ice.


Despite its ongoing difficulties, Washington woke up on Dec. 28 in second place in the Metropolitan Division, six points ahead of its nearest pursuer. But over a crucial 42-day span from late December into early February, the Caps won only six of 22 games (6-10-6). They also went winless against fellow Metro Division foes (0-6-1) during that stretch.


The Capitals won only three of their last 15 games (3-10-2) within their division.


Mid-January featured a rugged stretch of scheduling – including one of two spans in which the Caps played five games in seven nights – and the Caps endured a season-long seven-game slide (0-5-2) from Jan. 12-24. Washington scored a total of eight goals in those seven losses.


Neuvirth started three straight games from Jan. 31-Feb. 4, but became ill and was unable to start on Feb. 6 against Winnipeg. Holtby got the net back at that point, temporarily anyway. He reeled off four straight wins – two of them on each side of the Olympic break – to give the Caps a rare four-game winning streak.


On March 2 at Verizon Center, the Caps started a crucial home-and-home set with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Capitals were only a point behind the Flyers for third place in the Metropolitan Division and a point shy of the final wild card playoff berth in the Eastern Conference at that stage of the season.


Washington took a 4-2 lead into the third period against Philly, and was less than two minutes away from a season-high fifth straight victory. But the Caps collapsed late and dropped a devastating 5-4 overtime decision to the Flyers, a game that affected a three-point swing in the standings.


“We’ve done it too many times,” said Caps forward Eric Fehr after the game. “We almost don’t want two-goal leads the way we’re playing with them right now. I don’t know what it is, if we shut our brains off for a little bit or think the game is over, but in this league we should have learned by now that the games are far from over.”


“I don’t know what it is,” said Holtby. “We didn’t play a game today that we should have won. We were lucky to get to overtime. When the game is on the line like that and we have the lead, we have to lock down and play defensive hockey, and we aren’t doing that.”


That loss stunned the Caps; Washington won only one of its next six games (1-4-1). That skid plummeted the Capitals down to 11th place in the Eastern Conference, three points behind the final wild card spot. With only 15 games remaining at that point, the Caps needed to go on a spree if they had any hope of climbing back into the chase.


Ahead of a tough three-game trip to California, the Caps won consecutive home games against Vancouver and Toronto, respectively. They headed west with some confidence and played some of their best hockey of the season on that trip against three of the best teams the Western Conference has to offer.


Finishing with their first road win over the Sharks in more than two decades, Washington pulled five of a possible six points in those games in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose, and the Caps came home from that journey tied for the final wild card berth with 10 games remaining.


With a great performance on the trip, the Caps had salvaged their season. Now the trick was to roll that momentum into the final 10 games.


The task proved to be too much for the Caps.


Los Angeles visited Verizon Center on March 25, coming in on the heels of a game in Philadelphia the night before. Washington took a 3-1 lead into the third period but once again, the Caps were incapable of protecting a late lead and taking two valuable points. The Kings scored three times in the third to take a 4-3 lead, and only Evgeny Kuznetsov’s last-minute goal – the first of his NHL career – enabled the Caps to pull a single point from the fire in a 5-4 shootout loss.


“There’s no excuse,” said Caps forward Marcus Johansson after the game. “We have to find a way to win when we are up two goals. I think we have to be more careful with the puck in certain places, take plays when they’re there and when [the play is not there], try to make the right play.”


After the Caps frittered away a two-goal lead in the third period 23 days earlier against the Flyers, they suffered a six-game hangover afterwards. Washington knew it didn’t have enough margin for error for a repeat of that situation in the wake of the loss to Los Angeles, but that didn’t stop it from happening.


Another listless start led to a 4-2 loss to the Bruins on March 29.


“We obviously took too long to get into the game, right from the get go,” lamented 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.”


A night later in Nashville, the Caps dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to a Predators team that had won only one of its previous seven home games. Washington scored the game’s first goal, but it surrendered the tying strike less than two minutes later. Once again, the Capitals’ performance was inconsistent and uneven, especially given the lateness of the calendar and what was at stake.

There aren’t enough games left to be too positive about only getting one point,” noted 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 60 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.”

The Caps came home for a date with Dallas on April 1, and they sought to quell a three-game losing streak against the Stars. Instead, the Capitals were limp and listless in an embarrassing 5-0 home ice loss, their fourth in a row.

“There wasn’t one part of the game tonight that was good enough,” said 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.”


Next up on the docket for the Caps was a Metropolitan Division foe, the New Jersey Devils. Given that the loser of that April 4 game would fall to 11th place in the Eastern Conference with barely more than a week remaining in the campaign, the game was – for all intents and purposes – an elimination game.


The Caps played well but lost that game to the Devils by a 2-1 score. But even if they’d won that night and won the rest of their remaining games, they still wouldn’t have surpassed Detroit or Columbus for the final playoff berths in the Eastern Conference.


In the games Washington needed to win late in the season, it was undone by the same problems that led to lost points and opportunities in October, and beyond.


Washington finished with 38 wins – the most they’ve ever recorded in a non-playoff season – and 90 points. But only 28 of the Capitals’ victories were achieved in regulation and overtime. In the lockout-shortened 48-game season of 2012-13, the Caps authored 24 such triumphs.


Only four teams finished the ’13-14 season with less regulation and overtime wins than Washington: the New York Islanders (25), Edmonton (25), Florida (21) and Buffalo (19).


During most of their run of four straight Southeast Division titles, the Caps were a dominant puck possession team. But in 2013-14 they finished in the bottom third of the league in that regard, using both the Corsi and Fenwick measures. On too many nights, they spent more time chasing the puck and defending in their own end than driving the possession game and dictating the play at the other end of the ice.


Washington had a flawed roster, to be sure. They were a little short on defensive side of the depth chart, but the first full season after the lockout – and the resulting dip in the salary cap that took about $180 million in salary out of the marketplace – was an impossible environment in which to procure the difference-making top four blueliner that was needed. Even with that shortcoming, the Capitals were probably still good enough that they should have rolled up 100 points and finished second in the Metro Division, making the playoffs for a seventh straight season.


Every honest man in the Caps’ room will tell you they left at least 10 points on the table in ’13-14.


Five months from now, the Caps will open training camp in Arlington once again, preparing for their 40th season in the NHL. Washington is still seeking its first Stanley Cup, but you can’t win the Cup without making the playoffs. Team ownership and management are now in the process of conducting a postseason autopsy, one that figures to lead to some changes between now and September.