Misleading Lead – When is a 2-1 lead going into the third period not the equivalent of a 2-1 lead going into the third period?
Maybe when that 2-1 lead has been gained despite being tasked with eight penalty-killing missions in a span of 31:07, and when the team with the lead is playing on the road and has been dominated in terms of territory and puck possession, to the tune of being outshot – in terms of shots attempted – by a total of 60 (24 on net, 18 blocked and 18 missed) to 24 (13 on net, eight blocked and three missed) after 40 minutes.
The Capitals held a 2-1 lead heading into the third period of Thursday night’s game against the Maple Leafs in Toronto, but it was far from a lockdown lead. Watching from upstairs, the sense you had was, “This can’t possibly last.”
And it didn’t. Toronto came back with two third-period tallies to take a 3-2 win.
“Definitely misleading,” says Caps left wing Matt Hendricks of his team’s tenuous lead after 40 minutes of play. “If you’re not going to go out and keep playing the same hockey that got you the lead, it comes back to hurt you. And it has two nights in a row for us.”
Because of all the power-play time it enjoyed early in the contest – Washington took eight minor penalties in just over 31 minutes of game time – Toronto had worn the Caps down to the point where several Washington players looked to be skating with pianos on their backs and cinder blocks strapped to their thighs in the third.
“I would have to say tonight it was the penalties early,” laments Caps coach Adam Oates. “You expend so much energy killing those penalties that maybe you run out of juice. And we made a couple of mistakes on the goals.”
It was just a matter of time before the Caps relinquished the lead.
The tying goal came off the stick of Nikolai Kulemin at 7:40 of the third period. Kulemin’s goal came on the Leafs’ eighth shot on goal of the third period, eight shots that came in less than eight minutes. Toronto had taken 15 shots (eight on net, four blocked, three missed) to that point of the period while Washington had taken just six (none on net, two blocked four misses).
Just 2:13 after Kulemin’s goal, the Leafs took their first lead of the night on a Matt Frattin goal.
Worn down from so much penalty killing, the Caps had little left in the tank with which to mount a comeback. They lost a draw in their own end with just over a minute remaining, and were unable to gain control of the puck to get goaltender Michal Neuvirth off for an extra skater until about a half minute remained.
Alex Ovechkin carried into the attack zone and circled around the back of the net, surveying his options. He circled all the way around again, then tried to thread a cross-ice pass that was deflected away by a Leafs defender.
Washington mounted one last rush, but an Ovechkin shot from about 40 feet sailed harmlessly wide and Washington went down for the sixth time in seven games (1-5-1) to start the season.
It’s the second straight game that Washington led after 40 minutes of play, and the second straight game in which it came away with nothing to show for its efforts.
“The last few games we’ve been really, really solid at five-on-five most of the game,” says Caps right wing Joey Crabb. “The onus is on us to not take those penalties. And also mistakes at the end of the game, we’ve got to tighten it up. It’s getting frustrating with these last few games.”
The Caps have played Oates’ 5-on-5 system well for most of the team’s last four games, and when they do so it can be a taxing system to play against for the opposition. But by spending so much time in the penalty box, the Caps are unable to get into the rhythm of their system, making it easier on their opponents.
“I agree with that,” says Hendricks. “It wasn’t boom, boom, boom – penalty, penalty, penalty in a row. It was penalty, play three or four minutes, another penalty, play three or four minutes, another penalty. It’s bad habits right now.”
In short, the Caps are not doing enough to give themselves a chance to win. They’re not giving their system a chance to help them establish any consistency and to use it as a weapon against opponents.
“You don’t get into rhythm and guys don’t play,” says Oates. “Then when they come out, they’re not as warm as they should be and it affects their flow. Before you know it, it’s a choppy game and that stuff doesn’t really suit us.”
Powering Up – Caps center Mike Ribeiro is tied for ninth in the league with five power-play points (one goal, four assists).
The Capitals’ leading scorer with eight points on the season, Ribeiro has been involved in more than half of Washington’s offense (eight of 15 goals) on the season.
Ribeiro has more points than the combined total of Washington’s top four returning forwards from last season (see below).
Best Players? – Last season, Washington’s top five forwards in terms of scoring were Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Marcus Johansson, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich.
Semin departed for Carolina as a free agent last summer. Laich has yet to play because of an injury sustained while playing in Switzerland during the lockout.
Johansson was a healthy scratch for two games; he has yet to record a point this season.
Ovechkin has two goals – both on the power play – and one assist. He has gone Backstrom has four assists.
Backstrom has four assists.
The team’s top four returning forwards have combined for just two goals and seven points in seven games.
Ovechkin and Backstrom are the team leaders among forwards in ice time per game and even-strength ice time per game. Neither has scored an even-strength goal this season and the two have combined for just three assists in even-strength play.
40 Minutes of Bad Road – Prior to its disastrous two-game Canadian road trip, Washington had gone 94-0-9 the last 103 times it had entered the third period with a lead, a run that dated back to Feb. 24, 2009.
In each of its two games on this trip, the Caps led by a 2-1 count heading into the third. Washington squandered both leads – getting outscored 4-0 in the final 20 minutes of the two games – and was ultimately unable to manage a single point on the trip.
Had the Caps managed to finish off both opponents – something they had done with regularity for the last four years – they would be heading into February with a respectable 3-3-1 record and they’d be tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference, just a single point shy of the last playoff spot.
Instead, the Capitals are 1-5-1 and their total of three points leaves them last in the Southeast Division, last in the Eastern Conference, and last in the NHL. Calgary also has just three standings points, but it has played two fewer games.
Minus-10 – The Capitals own a minus-10 goal differential on the season, the worst among the 15 Eastern Conference teams. Among the 30 clubs in the league, only the Columbus Blue Jackets (minus-12) have a worse goal differential than Washington’s.
Toronto Tonic – Ovechkin scored his second power-play goal of the season, the goal that staked Washington to its 2-1 lead. Toronto has always been a bit of slump-busting city for Ovechkin. He now has 15 goals and 21 points in 15 career contests at Air Canada Centre.
Cluster … -- In each of the first four games of the 2012-13 season, the Caps created an onerous penalty-killing burden for themselves by taking clusters of penalties in short spans of time, leading to 5-on-3 opportunities for the opposition, taxing the team’s penalty-killing outfit and keeping many of their players from getting into the rhythm and flow of the game.
Over the past two contests, the Caps seemed to have cured that ill. But the tendency to take multiple minors flared up in a big way on Thursday night in Toronto.
Just 44 seconds after Joel Ward staked Washington to a 1-0 lead early in the first, the Capitals parade to the penalty box started. Washington ended up taking eight minor penalties in a span of 31:08 of game time. Included in that stretch was a double-minor and a two-man Toronto advantage of 1:18 in duration.
Discipline has been a problem for the Caps this season. They’ve had 38 penalty-killing missions in seven games and have had just 28 power-play chances of their own over the same span.
“You’ve got to watch your sticks,” says Crabb. “You’ve got to watch your mouth. You’ve got to play smart. If you’re in a good position defensively, you don’t have to take penalties. It’s definitely on us to not have those calls against us.”
Washington has been shorthanded more than any other Eastern Conference team this season. Only Columbus (39) has endured more shorthanded situations than the Capitals so far in 2012-13.
Weird Workloads – One Capitals skater – right wing Eric Fehr – does not play on either special team. As a result, Fehr skated just seven shifts for a total of 4:11 in ice time on the night.
Going into the game, Caps defensemen John Carlson (4:25 per game) and Karl Alzner (3:57) were the team’s leaders in terms of average shorthanded time on ice per game. Carlson logged 6:01 and Alzner 5:34 of shorthanded ice in Thursday’ game.
Other players who don’t normally spend much time on the penalty-killing unit were forced into emergency duty in that role. Joey Crabb went into the game with an average of 1:21 per game in shorthanded ice time. He finished Thursday’s game at 3:31 in that department. John Erskine’s average was 2:22; he logged 4:34 on Thursday.
Nicklas Backstrom’s average was 1;26 of shorthanded ice per game. That was ratcheted up to 4:13 on Thursday. Rookie Tomas Kundratek averaged 15 seconds per game in shorthanded ice before Thursday’s game. He skated 2:15 against the Leafs while Washington was a man down.
Joel Ward’s shorthanded ice went from an average of 34 seconds to 2:52 on Thursday.
Toronto’s power-play ice time was similarly skewed.
Phil Kessel (4:47) and Dion Phaneuf (4:44) led the Leafs in power-play ice time per game going into Thursday’s contest. They logged 8:29 and 9:10, respectively, in power-play time against the Caps.
James van Riemsdyk averaged 2:37 in power-play ice per game before the Caps hit town. He skated a staggering 7:52 in those circumstances on Thursday, notching the Leafs’ lone extra-man goal of the night.
Tyler Bozak’s power-play ice went from an average of 4:09 to 8:29 on Thursday night. Nikolai Kulemin’s went from 40 seconds per game to 3:42 against Washington.
Dominated On The Draw – Washington won just 30 of 74 face-offs (41%) on the night. The Caps were 5-for-21 (24%) in the offensive zone, 17-for-36 (47%) in the defensive zone and 8-for-17 (47%) in the neutral zone.
Familiar Outcome – Tonight was the fourth straight 3-2 game the Caps have been involved in. They’re 1-2-1 in those four contests.
Shuffling The Deck – Washington made a minor swap just hours before Thursday night’s opening face-off. The Caps dealt center Zach Hamill to the Florida Panthers in exchange for pivot Casey Wellman.
The Capitals are Wellman’s fourth organization in a span of less than a year.
Minnesota originally signed the Brentwood, Calif. native in 2010 after two seasons of collegiate hockey at U-Mass. The son of former major league baseball infielder Brad Wellman, Casey Wellman got into a dozen games with Minnesota at the tail end of 2009-10, his sophomore season at U-Mass.
Wellman totaled four goals and 13 points in 41 games for the Wild over the last three seasons before being dealt to the New York Rangers last Feb. 3 in exchange for Erik Christensen.
Last summer, Wellman signed with Florida as an unrestricted free agent. While skating for the Panther’s AHL San Antonio affiliate this season, Wellman totaled seven goals and 23 points in 37 games.
Wellman will report to the AHL Hershey Bears. During his time with AHL Houston, Wellman played with current Bears Jeff Taffe and Jon DiSalvatore. Hamill will report to San Antonio.
Shortly after the Wellman deal was announced, Hershey announced that it had dealt forward Mathieu Beaudoin to the Chicago Blackhawks (and the AHL Rockford IceHogs) in exchange for center Peter LeBlanc.
LeBlanc was a seventh-round (186th overall) NHL Entry Draft choice of the Blackhawks in 2006. He turned pro in 2010-11 after four seasons at U. of New Hampshire. LeBlanc totaled 24 goals and 44 points with Rockford in 2011-12, just his second pro season. He had four goals and 12 points in 34 games with the IceHogs this season.
Making A Case – Frattin now has four goals and six points in four games since being recalled from AHL Toronto last week. Each of his last two goals have been game-winners. Frattin scored a game-winning overtime tally against Buffalo on Tuesday with just 1.5 seconds remaining in the extra session, the latest any game-winning Leafs goal has been scored in the franchise’s history.
Frattin scored his first NHL goal against Washington on Nov. 19, 2011 at Air Canada Centre.
By The Numbers – Sixteen of the 24 skaters in the game took at least one face-off … Carlson and Alzner each blocked a team-high six shots for the Capitals … Mike Green led the Caps in ice time for the seventh time in as many game. He skated 25:57 on the night … John Erskine led the Capitals with three hits … No Capital had more than two shots on goal … The Leafs’ Phil Kessel took 15 shots (six on goal, seven blocked, two misses) … Toronto’s Tyler Bozak won 17 of 25 draws (68%).