The Capitals dropped their season opener, 6-4, to the defending Stanley Cup champions Tuesday night at United Center in a game that was an emotional roller coaster of a contest to kick off a new campaign.
The two teams exchanged goals for the first 40 minutes and then accelerated the back-and-forth offensive battle in the third when they combined for five goals. But if there’s something to learn from this particular loss, it may be a reminder that relying almost exclusively on the power play for offense – the Capitals scored three of their four goals on the man advantage – can be a fickle business.
Five thoughts on the Capitals loss to the Blackhawks.
1. Turnovers. Chicago thrives on speed, along with an aggressive mentality that makes opponents prone to coughing up the puck. They don’t need more help in that department, but Washington played into their game. Not every resulting breakaway or scoring chance resulted in a goal, but the Blackhawks were able to continuously answer every goal the visitors put on the scoreboard.
Not only did the turnovers provide Chicago more offensive opportunities but it stopped the Capitals’ own ability to develop a flow at even strength and drained their defensemen.
“We’re trying to get up the ice with speed and we kill it every time we do that,” Karl Alzner said. “Us D-men are trying to join the rush and you start moving forward every time a puck gets turned over you have to stop it. You waste your energy pretty quick.”
2. Strong Caps (regular season) debut. Mikhail Grabovski was impressive during the preseason. He raised the bar a bit more on opening night as he recorded a hat trick and an assist. The veteran center’s first tally came on a patient shot that beat Corey Crawford low glove side while he was on a 2-on-1 with Jason Chimera.
The second and third goals were uncannily similar, though, as Grabovski redirected two shots by Mike Green on the power play.
Grabovski is serving as the low man, down by the goal line, on the Capitals first power play unit and tonight he showed that he’s not afraid to go into those high-traffic areas. Those tipped and redirected goals weren’t a consistent part of the power play last year, but it adds a new wrinkle.
“That’s an option. So many teams try and take Ovi away,” Coach Adam Oates said. “The league nowadays crams it back toward the goalie because the goaltending is so much better. So we’ve got to find other ways to score and that’s one way.”
3. 5-on-3 fizzle. The Capitals recorded three power play goals on their first four attempts, but with the game on the line late in regulation, they couldn’t solve Crawford. It was a combination of strong saves by Crawford, pucks being blocked into the stands and allowing the Blackhawks to reset, and simply the law of averages catching up with the power play.
Washington recorded four shots on goal, had two attempts blocked and another that missed the net.
“You never want to be satisfied,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s good we scored a couple goals on the power play but we had that chance 5-on-3 and we should have scored.”
4. The game-winning goal. Johnny Oduya’s shot from the blueline should have been harmless, but it started rolling, then flipping end over end, as it made its way across the ice. The puck caught a piece of Braden Holtby’s glove, trickled in the net and stood as the decisive tally.
“It was a rolling puck. I knew it was going to be kind of a knuckler, but it kind of just sunk out of my sight. I don’t know why. I have to watch on the replay why. It just completely fooled me,” Holtby said. “I was not expecting it to hit me in my glove there, that’s for sure. I was expecting it to go well wide.”
While Holtby, who finished with 29 saves, was critical of his overall performance, Oates credited him with keeping the Capitals in the contest through the first two periods.
5. Tough outing. Even a strong showing throughout the preseason and training camp can’t prepare a young player completely for the intensity of a regular season NHL contest. Rookie defenseman Connor Carrick had a rough debut as he was involved in three of the Blackhawks first four goals.
He got outmuscled by Brandon Bollig in front on the first, was in the box for hooking on Brent Seabrook’s tally and made a costly turnover entering the offensive zone that sparked Brandon Saad’s tally. But it’s not easy making your NHL debut, let alone in your hometown, two factors Alzner can relate to.
“It’s extremely tough. I guess we’ll see but [Chicago is] probably the toughest team if not the toughest team in the league,” Alzner said. “They come with a lot of speed and it’s your hometown pretty much too. I’ve had some terrible games in Vancouver before. Not saying he played terrible, but it’s hard to play your first game, at home too. We’ve all seen him, he looks fine.”