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September 29, 2013

Exactly two weeks after it started, the Washington Capitals’ 2013 preseason slate concluded with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago on Saturday night. The dress rehearsals are done now; the games start counting in the standings on Tuesday when the Caps return to the Windy City to face the Hawks in the 2013-14 season opener.


The Caps never led in Saturday’s game, and they found the ice tilted heavily against them for much of the night, though a lot of that problem was their own doing. For the second time in as many starts, Caps goalie Braden Holtby was brilliant. He kept the Caps within a shot of drawing even all night, and Washington did exactly that three times.


“We were a little bit behind tonight,” says Caps coach Adam Oates, “I thought; a little slow. We turned it over too much.”


Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy netted the game’s first goal at 5:52 of the first. Patrick Sharp skated the puck across the top of the attack zone to the top of the right wing wall. Sharp fed Leddy in the high slot, and the blueliner cruised a few feet closer and picked his corner, high to Holtby’s glove side. It was a sharpshooter’s shot.


Although the Caps were outshot 12-4 in the first frame, Chicago held a much narrower advantage (14-13) in terms of shots attempted in the game’s first 20 minutes.


The Capitals had two power plays in the first, but no shots on net. They missed the net on three shot tries and had one blocked during their four minutes of power play time.


Washington went nearly 14 minutes without a shot on net from the middle of the first until early in the second. In the fifth minute of the middle frame, Holtby made a highlight reel stop on Sharp, moving laterally to his right to deny the Chicago forward from down low on the left side.


Seconds later, the Caps’ Dane Byers threaded a perfect lead pass to spring linemate Mikhail Grabovski on a breakaway, and the Washington pivot went high to the glove side to beat Chicago goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. Holtby’s save and Grabovski’s strike combined to forge a two-goal swing on the scoreboard.


Leddy netted his second of the night at 8:18 of the second, Sharp again drawing the primary assist. Chicago had traffic in front of Holtby, and the Hawks’ defenseman’s shot clanged in off the iron to give the home team a 2-1 lead.


Caps coach Adam Oates juggled his lines in the third, to some good effect early. The combination of Grabovski, ex-Hawk Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson collaborated on the tying tally at 3:42 of the third, Johansson finishing the play with his first goal of the preseason.


“I think it was a good rush from the start. I there was maybe a lucky bounce there that got it to Brouwer, and then I fanned on the shot a little bit but sometimes that’s what it takes to get it in. It’s good to get that first one out of the way, even though it’s the preseason. It’s always fun to sore. I just wish we’d had a better result today.”


Leddy helped set up Chicago’s third goal, a little more than three minutes after Johansson’s tally made it a 2-2 game. He got the puck to Jimmy Hayes, who tore down the right wing on a 2-on-1 with Brandon Saad on his left. Hayes opted to shoot, picked his corner and went high on Holtby’s glove side to restore the Hawks’ one-goal lead.


For the third time, the Caps pulled even. Playing in his first preseason game in more than a week, Caps right wing Joel Ward converted a nice feed from Jason Chimera in the left wing corner. Ward’s goal enabled the Caps to get the game to overtime where Andrew Shaw ended it for Chicago at 1:47 of the extra session.


When it was finished, it was finished. The Caps were done with training camp, done with their eight preseason games and set to embark on the long season ahead.


“It was a good game overall by a lot of guys,” says Chimera. “We fought back and got some points.”


“We obviously did some things well,” says Oates of the preseason as a whole. “Goaltending I thought had a really good preseason. We weren’t healthy at all, the whole time, so we didn’t get to see all our guys. But I think we’re going in the right direction


DIMINISHING RETURNS – Because they were sloppy with the puck in their own end of the ice, the Caps were rarely able to “go north,” as Oates likes to put it, and were almost never able to sustain a forecheck.


In the first period, the Caps attempted 13 shots (four on net, four blocked, five misses. In the second period, that figure dipped to nine shot bids (five on net, two blocked, two misses) and in the third it dwindled to just five (all on net). The Caps had one shot attempt in overtime, and it went on net.


“Giveaways,” says Oates. “It was in the second period where it got away from us a little bit. We just turned it over too many times. Puck on our stick, we just didn’t make good decisions with it. They just preyed on us and really took it to us.”


For the night Washington teed up a meager total of just 28 shots (15 on net, six were blocked and seven missed) to 54 for the Hawks.


LINE JUGGLING PAYS OFF – Under normal circumstances, Oates is extremely loathe to deploy wingers on their off-wings. In the third, he had righties Eric Fehr and Tom Wilson on a line with center Mathieu Perreault. He also had lefties Aaron Volpatti and Dane Byers on a line with pivot Jay Beagle.


Those moves left the Chimera-Martin Erat-Ward unit intact, and created the Johansson-Grabovski-Brouwer trio, a threesome that wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility once the season starts.


Sure enough, the Grabovski line scored on its second shift together.


“Yeah, isn’t that weird?” says Oates. “It was Fehrsie, mostly. I moved Fehrsie up and on left wing, just trying to create a spark, that’s all. I just thought we were too flat. Nothing regular. I even put [ righty shooting John Carlson] on left D there with [righty Mike Green], to see if we could get something out of it. Just experimenting.”


“We just changed a few things up in the third,” notes Fehr. “I’m not exactly sure what we were going for, but we had some good pressure for parts.


“But I think we’ve just got to be better in our end. I think a lot of the game we spent in our zone because we couldn’t get the pucks out and I think he was trying to change up the lines because of that.”


HEAVY DUTY – Holtby started on Monday in Boston against the Bruins, and again on Saturday in Chicago. Those were his only two full games of the preseason, but given the amount of rubber he saw in those games and the fact that they both went go overtime, it probably felt like more than two full games.


“It was good,” says Holtby of Saturday’s 32-save effort against the Blackhawks. “It was a little hot in the building for it, though. I’m not used to that, getting accustomed to that again. It felt a little tiring toward the end.


“Hopefully we can keep the games a little more even than the two starts I’ve had. Throughout the year, I’m sure we will once we get our full lineup together. They’re a good team, though.”