One-timers: Carolina senses Capitals’ struggles, trying to knock them out of division race

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

 

With 48 games in 99 days, there’s not a lot of time to digest what happened in any single contest. So as we churn through this compressed Capitals season, I’ll be rounding up my thoughts and analysis of each game here. If you missed them, check out the game story from the 4-0 loss to the Hurricanes and more on how Carolina targeted Washington’s beat up blue line.

>> Each loss makes the Capitals’ playoff chances grow dimmer, and following their third straight defeat Tuesday night, there was a somber tone in each corner of the home dressing room at Verizon Center.

Following the 4-0 loss to the Hurricanes Tuesday night, Washington’s postseason hopes are quite precarious. The Capitals sit 14th in the Eastern Conference with 21 points, seven out of eighth place and a full 10 behind the Southeast Division leading Carolina Hurricanes. A loss in Thursday’s game at Carolina would all but eliminate the Capitals in the division race.

The Hurricanes are quite aware of the stakes and know they can essentially put their familiar foe out of reach with a win in Raleigh.

“Definitely. I think if you watched them play tonight, it seems like they’re missing maybe some confidence,” said Hurricanes defenseman Joe Corvo, who had a brief stint with the Capitals. “They’re struggling a little bit. As a team that’s on a roll and playing well, you’ve got to smell blood.”

Asked before Thursday’s game if he and his team viewed this week as an opportunity to lock the Capitals away in the East’s basement, Coach Kirk Muller insisted that the Hurricanes excel when they take a simple game-by-game approach rather than look too far ahead. Following the win, he stressed the same mentality.

“You just can’t take anything for granted. That was one of our strongest 60-minute performances this year and in a big game, that’s great with having so many young guys,” Muller said. “What we’ve done a really job [of] is staying focused. We’ll rest tomorrow, get back at it Thursday and it happens that Washington will be our opponent again, and we’ve got to have the same mindset that every game you’ve got to go out and earn it.”

Captain Eric Staal shared a similar, even-keeled approach.

“Obviously when you’re at the top of the division, there’s gonna be important games where teams are looking at you to gain some ground. We’ve been focusing in on making sure we’re prepared every night, and especially against our own division,” Staal said. “We’re gonna need to do that Thursday, and we know that they’re gonna be pushing hard to try and get a win. We’ve got to be ready to go.”

>> Capitals players pulled no punches after Tuesday’s loss. Nicklas Backstrom called it “60 minutes of just terrible effort.” Karl Alzner took aim at the team’s lack of energy and intensity.

Coach Adam Oates didn’t share their opinion, though.

“Obviously, when you get behind the way we did, it gets hard, but you know, they didn’t have their first chance until four minutes left in the first period so I can’t necessarily agree with that,” Oates said. “We were doing a lot things right. We had a lot of chances early, we didn’t score, they got a soft one and put us on our heels.”

Still, it’s hard not to see that there were things the Capitals could have done better against Carolina, from driving the net to eliminating time and space in the neutral zone to thwarting an opposing offensive possession.

Asked if he could pinpoint where things changed from the Capitals’ three-game winning streak to this three-game losing streak, Alzner couldn’t identify a root cause but there’s little that likely couldn’t be solved by some old-fashioned work.

“I’m not positive. The Islanders game and the Rangers game we took too many penalties and now it’s almost like we’re not playing with that energy and that intensity anymore,” Alzner said. “We’re scared to take penalties, we’ve got to be hitting more. We’ve got to make it tougher on teams to play us because right now it’s pretty easy. Our battle, our compete level hasn’t been high enough. The exact reason, I don’t know, but it’s been a downward spiral in the last three.”

>> In the past two games Braden Holtby is now 0-2 with a 3.96 goals against average and .889 save percentage. (Over his 13 starts in the last 14 games, Holtby is 8-5 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.)

Yes, two games a small sample size and Holtby is still the go-to guy in net, but for the first time in a long while it seems like a legitimate question to ask who will start in net next. Would you stick with Holtby on Thursday in Carolina? Or perhaps give Michal Neuvirth his first start in more than a month to shake things up?

>> The first goal the Hurricanes scored was, as Oates called it, a soft one. A shot by Corvo went off the side of Holtby’s mask and into the net. The netminder believed the Carolina defenseman shot at his head intentionally.

“Caught me off guard. Obviously I was trying to keep my place on the post and trying to read where he was going to pass it to,” Holtby said. “It was pretty creative on his part; I’ve never seen someone try that, so it kind of caught me off guard. … You usually have some that are deflected but nothing when the guy is actually trying to do it.”

Corvo said he wasn’t trying for a bank shot off Holtby’s mask but a deflection anywhere off the goaltender’s body.

“I was aiming for like the back of him, his back,” Corvo said. “Anywhere up there, and it just so happened to hit his head.”

>> Alexander Semin recorded the primary assist on Corvo’s tally and played an overall solid game against his former club. When he was most noticeable, though, was early in the second period when Semin was clipped by high sticks on consecutive shifts.

The first was a high stick by Semin’s longtime friend Alex Ovechkin on the follow-through of a shot. The second came when Holtby’s paddle cut Semin’s chin down by the Capitals’ goal line.

“I tried to lift my stick back into my blocker and I had no idea he was skating there,” Holtby said. “I felt bad, I felt like I hit him pretty hard. Hope it didn’t hurt him too bad because that was not intentional at all.”

Muller was pleased with Semin’s overall game.

“He put the team in front of his personal stuff tonight, so I thought it was good,” Muller said. “He did get caught twice, twice in the face. … Both were [accidental]. One was a follow-through on a shot and the other one was in the corner there. Both accidental. Just, he got caught twice, which you don’t see too often.”

>> Of the six defensemen who suited up for the Capitals Tuesday night, Steve Oleksy may have been the oldest, but Jeff Schultz, who was playing in his 393rd career NHL game, had the most experience in the group.

While the Hurricanes made a deliberate effort to wear down Washington’s defense and occasionally its youngest members were overexposed, it was Schultz with the most glaring mistake. Patrick Dwyer beat him back behind the net to negate an icing, steal the puck and pop out front to find Riley Nash, who scored to make it 3-0 Carolina.

“Just got beat back to the puck, went to the wrong side of the net and I got outmuscled behind the net they put it out front and scored,” Schultz said. “That was just a mistake on my part.”

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