Five thoughts on the Capitals’ 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh

March 11

(Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

The Capitals continued to struggle against the Pittsburgh Penguins, falling 3-2 Monday night, in the latest installment between these two rivals. Washington has now lost seven straight against the Penguins, dating from January 2012, and are winless in six tries against them under Coach Adam Oates. They’ll get another crack at it Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, though, as the two teams meet for a rematch.

Five thoughts on the loss to the Penguins.

1. Mojo. Coming out of the Olympic break I sat down with Oates for a one-on-one interview that encompassed all sorts of topics, including how a few particular losses this season he felt had damaged the Capitals’ momentum because of the manner in which the defeats came. One such game was the Capitals’ 4-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 15 in which they played rather well but squandered a third-period lead in the final 10 minutes of the game. That loss was Washington’s third straight at the time, and the team went on to lose four more afterward for the longest slide of the season.

“We’ve had a couple timing losses that have hurt our mojo,” Oates said late last month. “If we won in Pittsburgh I felt like we would have won every game on that trip. That was the tough game. We played great against San Jose the night before, we lose in a shootout. We lose to Pittsburgh with nine minutes left when we had three leads in the game — if we won that game I felt we were going to win every game on the trip.”

Monday night as Oates and the players talked about how this latest matchup with the Penguins was well within their grasp, they just couldn’t find a way to put everything together to come away with a win it reminded me of those comments.

In addition to that Jan. 15 loss at Pittsburgh, the unexpected loss to Philadelphia on March 5 in which the Capitals squandered a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes resulted in a similar downtrodden feeling and then two subsequent ugly losses. Could Monday’s loss have the same effect? Tonight and the games that follow will show for sure, but the Capitals really don’t have room for another multi-game slide if they’re going to make a push for the playoffs in the final 16 games.

Asked if Monday’s loss might have an impact on the rematch just more than 24 hours later, Oates said: “I hope the guys realize that that’s a winnable game and we can’t give them anything to start. We’ve got to start the way we just finished.”

2. A quick goal against. A sure fire way to send shockwaves through a team? Allow a goal against in the first minute of any period, but especially that first minute of a game. Monday night Chris Kunitz scored just 46 seconds into the contest when the Capitals gave Sidney Crosby too much time and space to work in the neutral zone. While Washington came back to tie the game in what was a breakneck pace in the first 3:52 as the two teams combined to score three goals on five shots, giving up that early initial tally had the home team on its heels.

“Those two quick goals in the first period, they kind of set us back a little bit, took some time away from us in terms of momentum and took too long for us to get going,” John Carlson said. “I think we did respond well. I don’t think anybody put their heads down. I thought we kept battling all the way. I think just our momentum couldn’t really kick us into overdrive until later on in the game, and we’ve got to work on that.”

If they want a different result in the rematch Tuesday night, the Capitals can’t offer up juicy mistakes for Pittsburgh to pounce on so early in the contest.

3. Neutral zone. For as well as the Capitals played in stretches Monday night, they made a pair of glaring neutral zone mistakes that led directly to Pittsburgh goals. The Penguins’ first tally came when Crosby was able to gain control of the puck in the neutral zone and find Kunitz, who had caught Mike Green unprepared to handle an oncoming attacker at the blue line. Kunitz made one quick move to the outside to get around Green and skate in alone on net.

Then on the Penguins’ game winner, they gained steam through the neutral zone once again. Lee Stempniak was guarded by Jack Hillen when he redirected a pass through the neutral zone on to Crosby who then cut between Washington’s defensive pairing. Crosby drew both Hillen and Connor Carrick toward him as he skated low in the defensive zone before passing the puck back out to Stempniak above the circles.

Meanwhile, no one picked up Kunitz as he drove toward the net. So when Jaroslav Halak kicked the rebound out in front Kunitz was able to sneak in behind Nicklas Backstrom and fire the puck into the yawning cage.

“They’re just a very opportunistic team. The neutral zone, controlling the neutral zone was a key for us today and two of the goals they got we didn’t do it,” Brooks Laich said. “The first one at the start of the game, certainly, and the third one they get speed through the neutral zone and make a play and after that they capitalize on their opportunity, other than that I didn’t think they had a whole lot.”

Maybe not, but it was enough for a win.

4. Jason Chimera, setup man. Joel Ward had won a battle along the boards for the puck and sent it behind to Jason Chimera. Now the Capitals’ veteran winger is known most for his speed – you don’t get the nickname Ice Cheetah for being slow – and being able to throw opponents off balance with how quickly he blazes in on the forecheck. But Chimera paused, took in the developing play and with four Penguins on his side of the ice threaded a pass to the right circle where Eric Fehr had gotten a step on Taylor Pyatt. Fehr swatted the puck past Zatkoff to tie the game at one but it was Chimera’s pass that turned a battle along the wall into a scoring chance.

Chimera has now recorded an assist in five of the last six games and the one against Pittsburgh marked a career-high 22 for the year. Fehr’s tally and Brooks Laich’s tying goal against Phoenix were two particular pretty plays, not to mention that they came at an important time for the Capitals.

Here’s that play:

5. Former Caps update. While it’s not related to last night’s game, I can’t help but note that Martin Erat – he of the two goals as a Capital, one coming on an empty net – scored his first goal with an NHL goaltender in net this season Monday night in his third game with the Coyotes. The tally came against Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop in Phoenix’s 4-3 shootout win over the Lightning.

After all that occurred in Erat’s dramatic stay with the Capitals, from not having a clear cut role, to playing fourth line minutes and requesting a trade until he was finally sent to the Coyotes the day before the trade deadline you just knew he would score rather quickly with his new club.

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