COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Capitals’ 11th loss in 15 games, a particularly gruesome 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Blue Jackets, didn’t leave any positives in the scrap heap. This was a bad loss, pure and simple, to a team chasing Washington in the standings. And on a rough night for every Capital, it was a bad penalty by rookie Tom Wilson that began the unraveling.
Five thoughts on the loss in Columbus.
1. Mental mistakes. You can probably just call these mistakes, but a lack of focus was evident throughout. From Wilson’s unnecessary penalty to incorrect decisions in the defensive zone that led to the Blue Jackets’ second and third goals, bad passes, turnovers in all three zones and so on.
“I would say the biggest frustration, my initial reaction, would be mentally not ready,” Coach Adam Oates said. “You make mental mistakes you get in trouble.”
Oates didn’t want to attribute it to anything and offer an excuse for what was an unquestionably bad game and he went on to break down the variety of errors that plagued Washington’s game.
“We had a PP and Willy (Wilson) retaliates. I know he’s a young kid but he’s got to be smarter, that’s a mistake, they score a goal,” Oates said. “After that, couple reads by the defensemen, pure mental. End of the first period, we turned it over twice tired at the end of shifts. And part of our plan every night is if you don’t have a play you’ve got to get it deep. We didn’t and they score a second goal. Now you’re fighting an uphill battle against a team that’s feeling good about themselves. That’s pure mental as a group.”
The players all offered similar sentiments. What’s puzzling about a team that couldn’t match the intensity of its opponent was that it was a key matchup against a divisional foe. The Blue Jackets aren’t a highly-touted squad, but they’re willing to outwork anyone that lets them and Washington made it a particularly easy task on Friday night.
This is far from the first time this season the Capitals have taken teams lightly. They’ve lost to last-place Buffalo twice in less than a month, fell to the wayward Florida Panthers on Dec. 13 and were defeated twice by 28th place Calgary twice back in October. Admittedly, many teams play up or down to the perceived level of competition. But this is one of the uglier losses of the year, that 5-2 shellacking in Calgary included.
“It’s just the way we played,” Oates said. “You can’t play like that. It’s bad hockey.”
2. Columbus’ second goal. Late in the first period the Capitals’ usually reliable third line didn’t get the puck deep and turned it over at the offensive blueline. That sent the Blue Jackets rushing back in the opposite direction, with Ryan Murray carrying the puck into the Washington end. Murray makes a drop pass to Brandon Dubinsky that prompted both Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera to rush toward the Columbus center, who fires a shot on net and creates havoc as the rebound pops out in front. Four Capitals – Mike Green, Dmitry Orlov, Joel Ward and Johansson — box out two opponents, giving Cam Atkinson space to snatch the loose puck and put a shot high. It was as though all four players were frozen, watching the play unfold rather than trying to stop it.
“We turned it over, then we didn’t handle the rush, they made a drop pass to a player and everybody rushed towards him,” Oates said. “That’s mental. That’s not communicating, that’s not going back into your right spot, guys over trying because they panic and that’s just an accumulation of trickle down. You make a mistake on one end and you over try on the other end to try and figure it out.”
3. Columbus’ third goal. This also wasn’t a shining moment for the Orlov-Green defensive pairing. On this occasion early in the second period it was a rush led by R.J. Umberger that held the power to transfix everyone on the ice including both defensemen and Brooks Laich. So when Umberger hesitated just long enough to stall the Capitals, he sent a pass across the ice to Ryan Johansen for a snap shot from the left circle.
That play also started with an error in the offensive zone, a turnover by Alex Ovechkin. For all the apparent strides Washington made in its defensive poise in losses to the Sharks and Penguins, it took several steps back Friday night as players routinely missed assignments and suffered brain-freeze at inopportune moments.
4. Goalie-go-round. Oates said he pulled Philipp Grubauer because he “felt sorry for him” and that the three goals he allowed on 14 shots weren’t to be blamed on the 22-year-old netminder but the team as a whole. I don’t disagree with that assessment. The first goal was a screen, the second and third total lapses on the part of the skaters on the ice. This type of lackluster defense has burned the other goaltenders before – Braden Holtby being pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots to Tampa Bay on Dec. 10 comes to mind – and it was likely just a matter of time before Grubauer became the latest victim.
To his credit Holtby, who had appeared in all of three games in a month prior to being summoned from the bench Friday night, gave the Capitals a chance to hang in the game. He stopped 20 of the 22 shots he faced but said he would like to have Mark Letestu’s goal – a well-placed shot into the left corner – back.
“You always have to be ready, some of those nights just happen and that’s what you have the backup goaltender for,” Holtby said. “I felt fine I guess, as good as you really can going into a situation like that, thought I made one tiny mistake. [Letestu] had a really good pinpoint shot – one that I on another night I’d probably have. I felt fine … just would have liked to pitch in a little more.”
It will certainly be interesting to see if Oates chooses to go back to Grubauer, who made 30 of 31 saves in Washington’s 4-1 win over the Rangers back on Dec. 8, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in another four-point game against one of the teams in the middle of the suddenly crowded Metropolitan Division.
5. Metropolitan standings. Yes, the Capitals have only played 48 of 82 games. Yes, there is time for them to get back on track. But this was a week they didn’t want to give away points to fellow Metropolitan Division teams, especially with six of the next seven still on the road.
As things stand now Pittsburgh looks all but untouchable with 70 points for the division lead. Only eight points separate second-place Philadelphia from the last-place Islanders, though, and the five teams from second to sixth are all within three points of each other. Teams like the Flyers, Rangers, Devils and Blue Jackets who all struggled at the beginning of the year have started to establish consistency. While Washington is in the middle of the pack at fourth place, it’s a volatile spot that can change on any given night.
“We do have quite a bit of games left but the more setbacks that we have the harder we’re making our lives,” John Carlson said. “You want to be not worried about in the hunt, we want to be in the playoffs all the time and we need to change something to pick it up.”