Five thoughts on the Capitals’ 5-3 loss in Minnesota

January 5

(AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Unnecessary penalties proved to be costly as the Capitals squandered a two-goal lead and lost 5-3 to the Minnesota Wild, who recorded only 11 shots on goal in the contest. It was a rough return for Braden Holtby, who acknowledged after the game that he must rebuild his confidence after a series of tough outings.

Five thoughts on the loss in Minnesota.

1. Penalty kill. There was a point this season when the Capitals owned not only a top-ranked power play, but one of the best penalty kill units in the league as well. To be sure, maintaining that type of efficiency on either unit, let alone both, is daunting but in recent weeks the Capitals have struggled to find success shorthanded.

In the last nine games, a stretch that dates from Dec. 17 at Philadelphia, Washington is 23 for 33 (69.7 percent) on the penalty kill. The only games where they haven’t given up a power play goal in that span were at Ottawa, where the unit went a perfect 4 for 4, and in Buffalo where the Sabres didn’t receive any power plays.

Minnesota may have been an anomaly of sorts, given that the Wild recording three power play goals on three power play shots, but it also showed a larger trend of teams creating predictable results by wreaking havoc with traffic in front of the Capitals’ net. The Wild’s first power play tally came on a 5-on-3, where bodies in front are expected, as Ryan Suter blasted a slap shot through the two-player screen of Dany Heatley and John Carlson. But then 42 seconds later, Heatley crossed in front again as Suter wristed the puck on net behind both Carlson and John Erskine creating yet another perfect impediment for Braden Holtby to contend with.

The Capitals generally elect not to worry about opponents stacking players in front of the crease, they want to prevent the play from getting that far along.

“There’s nothing you can do. Most teams, us included, there’s time where we leave the traffic alone and try to deny the pass to the net,” Coach Adam Oates said of the traffic, adding that Holtby may have been able to play Suter’s first shot better. “I think Holts maybe he got caught looking the wrong way there because when you look at the shot, [it’s] probably the middle of the net on that one. You expect traffic on a five-on-three. The puck had eyes and got in.”

But as teams continue to convert on chances coming through screens, whether cleanly or off a deflection and regardless of which goaltender is in the net, perhaps an adjustment is in order so that a hulking 6-4, 220 pound winger like Heatley can’t just move behind the defense to eliminate the goaltender’s sight lines.

“The D and the forwards can do a better job,” Carlson said. “The only positive thing I guess is we’re not getting seamed out all the time and giving them empty netters back door or anything like that. But the result’s the same so it’s something that we need to fix.”

Either that, or find a way to minimize penalties altogether. Washington gave up 5-on-3 goals against in each of the past two games and the easiest way to prevent that lopsided advantage for an opponent is to not take the second unnecessary penalty – a high sticking call on Brooks Laich against Carolina and a puck over the glass delay of game on Karl Alzner in Minnesota.

“We shoot ourselves in the foot,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think we’re fine five-on-five but it’s tough when you get so many penalties against you and have to play PK.”

2. Turning stats on their heads. One of the most maddening parts of the Capitals’ four game losing streak is that in each of the losses they’ve won the possession battle at even strength. Washington has outshot its opponents during this stretch a combined 156-99 and the only individual game it didn’t outshoot a foe was in Ottawa where the Senators were ahead 38-35.

The defeat to the Wild was arguably the most bewildering. Washington set a new franchise record for fewest shots allowed in a road game, 11, beating the previous mark of 12 that was set on Jan. 17, 1996 but still lost. It wasn’t like Buffalo, which featured a lopsided 50-17 difference in shots, where the Capitals couldn’t overcome a sterling effort from a top goaltender. This was a game that Washington knocked itself off track by taking three penalties in the second period after owning the contest in the first, as the Wild took only one shot on net.

“I can’t see us doing much better than that,” John Carlson said of the first. “I think our penalties kind of stymied us a little bit not just the score but our momentum and our drive and everything like that. It took us too long to get it back by the time we did we got into the same issues.”

For the Capitals to climb out of this losing streak it clearly isn’t as simple as focusing solely on the strides they’ve made five-on-five. Somehow they need to find a way to reign in the details — like preventing the unnecessary penalties in Minnesota, not allowing the quick response goals allowed to Carolina and communicating to avoid defensive miscues in Ottawa — because every night a different one is costing Washington two points.

“It’s just frustrating in general, for all of us and clearly the guys don’t obviously mean it,” Oates said of the puck over the glass penalties by Karl Alzner and Mikhail Grabovski that paved the way for two Minnesota goals. “A little poise and that’s why you work on stuff all the time, controlling the puck as much as possible because details end up biting you in the [butt].”

3. Division standings. With their loss and a Philadelphia win Saturday night, the Capitals slipped to third in the Metropolitan Division on Saturday. The two teams are tied with 46 points but the Flyers own the tiebreak. While there’s obviously plenty of games left, this is where Washington’s lack of regulation and overtime wins has come into play. Aside from the Islanders, who have 10 regulation and overtime wins to the Capitals’ 12, every other team in the division would win a tiebreak against Washington. In a division where second and seventh place are separated by six points, that’s far from an ideal situation.

Washington has four days before its next game – an off day Sunday followed by three days of practice – at Tampa Bay. By the time the puck drops against the Lightning second-place Philadelphia (46 points) fourth-place New York (44 points) and fifth-place Carolina (43 points) will all have played two more games giving them opportunity to tighten the race even further. Sure, the Caps will have games in hand but that only matters if they win them.

4. Green’s goals. The bright spots for the Capitals came in the first period Saturday night, perhaps none better than Mike Green’s first goal. It came just 13 seconds after Marcus Johansson put them ahead with a power play tally – a reversal from the usual scenario where the opposing team scores that rapidly after a Caps’ goal – but it was also highlight-reel worthy. Green made a fool of Matt Cooke as he pulled the puck around the Wild forward and then fired a wrister past Niklas Backstrom.

On a night where he scored easily his prettiest goal of the year, Green also recorded an incredibly lucky one. With just under 14 minutes gone in the second period, his shot went off the end boards, bounced back out between Backstrom’s leg and the post, deflected off the goaltender and into the net.

Here’s video of both beginning with the nice individual play.

And the fortuitous bounce.

5. The road ahead. After playing 23 of its first 41 games at home, Washington will have to find a way to steady itself and improve its game on the road this month if it hopes to keep pace in the division. The Capitals play nine of their 13 remaining games in January away from Verizon Center and the road – where they’re 7-8-4 — hasn’t been a friendly environment for this inconsistent squad. But they’ll have no choice but to find a way to at least tread water, seeing as several of the teams in the Metropolitan Division that started out slow have picked up steam and points.

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