Five thoughts on the Capitals’ 2-1 shootout loss to the Sabres

January 13

Cody Hodgson celebrates his game-winning goal in the shootout Sunday night to clinch a 2-1 Sabres victory over Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In a sleepy game against the worst team in the NHL, the Capitals didn’t have the intensity to overcome Buffalo and saw two chances to win the game late in regulation fizzle en route to a 2-1 shootout loss. Ryan Miller came up big again against Washington, robbing Mikhail Grabovski on what looked like a sure game winner with 2:07 left.

Five thoughts on the loss to the Sabres.

1. Lulled to sleep. Two hours before puck drop at Verizon Center, Coach Adam Oates spoke of the danger of falling into the Buffalo Sabres’ passive style of game, that the Capitals needed to avoid being lulled to sleep. Multiple players afterward said that’s precisely what happened.

“We didn’t come out with enough energy,” Jason Chimera said.

“I think everybody probably felt it. We weren’t sharp enough,” Karl Alzner said.

Oates acknowledged that was certainly part of the problem but he also attributed Washington’s malaise to fatigue.

“I don’t think we had the energy we should,” Oates said. After “two emotional games [against Tampa Bay and Toronto] I thought if anything we were a little tired.”

For a team very much in a fight for points and place in the standings – yes, I realize it’s early to be scoreboard watching but in this compact Olympic year it seems as though things can slip away from a team quite quickly – to be tired in a winnable game against the Sabres comes off as disconcerting.

Washington hasn’t won three games in a row since early December and in falling to the Sabres squandered what precious momentum it had built in those two, rare, regulation wins in the games prior.

“It was funny, after the second period they only had four chances five-on-five but it felt like way more. Our execution was off, that’s I think part of it is fatigue, mental fatigue stress,” Oates said. “Those last two games we won [against] Toronto late, beat Tampa late. I think mentally you get a little tired, physically as well. Our execution – we ice the puck four feet from center five times tonight — that turns into disaster for us. Guys are yelling at each other; it just wears you down.”

It’s in January when the length of a full NHL season seems to hit teams and the grind is omnipresent. But the Capitals will need to fight through that general fatigue, if they’re to ever truly get on the kind of roll players have spoken about in recent days.

2. Shootout dud. For all of Alex Ovechkin’s offensive numbers this season Washington’s star has struggled in the shootout. He’s 2-for-12 in the tiebreak sessions this season, by far the worst among the three players who have had at least 10 attempts. (Nicklas Backstrom is 6-for-11. Mikhail Grabovski is 5-for-10.) But while Ovechkin is far from automatic in the shootout, Oates dismissed any suggestion that he might remove the right wing from the list of Washington’s first three shooters.

“He’s had a tough time lately,” Oates said. “But I don’t blink when it comes to that.”

3. The Backstrom line. Oates split up Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to impact the ability of opposing teams to load up matchups both forward lines and defensive pairings against a single top line. But the assumption was that each of those lines will create enough of a threat to not only balance scoring but force an opponent’s hand that way. It’s only been three games but the combination of Backstrom with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer just doesn’t seem able of doing that consistently.

They’ve had some success cycling the puck and sustaining a presence in the offensive zone, but too often there seems to be miscommunication between the two wingers. Both Brouwer and Laich are at their best when playing a physical game, working low in the corners and helping to move a possession forward. But when on a unit together they sometimes try to do the same thing – regardless of what center they’re playing with. There are moments when they’ve been able to overcome that but far too often it leads to derailed possessions and more time spent chasing the puck than with it.

“Both of us want to be the guy in the corner, controlling the puck, protecting the puck and when you’ve got two guys racing in there to do the same job that means you’re leaving a job on some part of the ice open,” Brouwer said recently.  “We’ve just got to be patient with each other, read off each other, make sure we’re not trying to do the same thing both not trying to do too much or too little. Honestly it’s a tough mix to try and figure out out there.”

4. Grubauer. Night in, night out rookie Philipp Grubauer continues to give the Capitals a chance to win. Oates won’t go so far as to dub him the number one publicly but at this point actions speak louder than words and sticking with the 22-year-old in 11 of 16 games certainly indicates that at least at this juncture he has taken over that top spot.

“He’s playing good, he looked solid in the net. Every guy’s going to have his moments for sure and you can’t over read that,” Oates said. “He’s got plenty of rest too. I think he’s doing good, don’t want to overstate it either.”

Oates is always cautious about heaping praise on young players because he knows how quickly circumstances can change. But it will be interesting to see who he decides to lean on in tough back-to-back games against San Jose Tuesday and at Pittsburgh  Wednesday.

5. Marcus Johansson in front. Another game where the young forward’s willingness to go to those tough areas of the ice paid off for him and the Capitals. If Johansson isn’t driving hard to the net with Sabres defenseman Brian Flynn in hot pursuit then when Jason Chimera throws the puck at the net it has no one – Sabre or otherwise – to deflect off of and past Ryan Miller. For someone who opponents could push around, literally and figuratively, early in his career Johansson has shown great strides in assertiveness this season. He doesn’t hesitate to move in front of the net, to take that initial contact from a defender and work through it to create a chance or other play. It’s an encouraging sign of Johansson’s development and evolution in his fourth full NHL season and it certainly wouldn’t hurt if some of his teammates followed his lead in frequenting those areas around the net either.

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