Five thoughts on the Capitals’ 2-0 loss to the Penguins

March 12

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH – A slow start put the Capitals behind Pittsburgh in the first period and they weren’t ever able to catch up. Marc-Andre Fleury recorded a 32-save shutout as Washington fell, 2-0.

Five thoughts on another loss to the Penguins.

1. Long shifts. The Capitals and Penguins played a stunning 13 minutes and 45 seconds without a whistle in the first period Tuesday night but while it made for a great pace to the game, it also highlighted the visitors’ poor start. Washington spent countless minutes in its own end trying to clear the puck across the blue line but usually, whenever they did it was a brief respite because the players had expended all of their energy trying to get the puck out they just went for a change once they did.

Changes, however, were far from a guaranteed thing. During that stretch without a stoppage every Capitals’ defenseman except John Carlson skated at least one shift more than a minute long. The bottom two pairings, Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green; Jack Hillen and Connor Carrick, were both caught out twice for more than 60 seconds.

“It’s hard. Any time you get stuck out there, mismatches come up and you get hemmed in your own end,” Carrick said. “You try and stay poised, you try not to hit that panic button when you’re in your own end but it’s tough because sometimes you’ll make a good play up to the wall and they’ll make a good squash, a good pinch and it’s frustrating. You just try to keep doing what works, manage your energy levels do what works.”

The defensemen weren’t the only ones, as the forwards had lengthy shifts as well in the first period.  It’s a never-ending cycle when teams are unable to move the puck up ice and it’s become a familiar case for the Capitals. They spend so much time chasing the play in their own end that there’s little jump left to do anything else once they do reach the neutral zone. Is part of the growing exhaustion from it being the second of back-to-back games? A bit, but the Penguins played Monday night too.

“It’s tough to feel like you’re into the game when you’re in your D-zone for the majority of the first period,” Troy Brouwer said. “It’s tough on a back-to-back guys are always a little bit more tired than they would be from a normal game when you get one of those long shifts in your D-zone….You always get a little bit more tired and if you do have one of those long shifts, it can just kill you for the rest of the game make you exhausted and not able to get your legs back. I think everyone had a shift or two where they couldn’t quite get out of their D-zone with a good change for a little while.”

Washington Capitals goalie Jaroslav Halak (41), of Slovakia, plays in the NHL hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

2. Halak. Arguably the main reason the Capitals were able to stay in the game as long as they did, especially without letting the first period get out of control, was Jaroslav Halak. The netminder made his third consecutive start, second in as many nights in part because Coach Adam Oates didn’t think the 20-shot workload Monday night was enough to negatively impact Halak’s efforts Tuesday. Halak came through with a sturdy performance better than the one the night before, finishing with 30 saves. Pittsburgh’s first goal was a perfectly placed tip he could do little to prevent. While the Capitals would like to see him come up with a big save on Sidney Crosby with less than six minutes left to keep it a one-goal game – Halak said he thought Crosby was going to pass rather than shoot on that play — at some point they needed offense too.

“I’m there to stop the puck and tonight I let in two,” Halak said. “It’s tough to win when we don’t score any goals, especially on the road, but I know everybody was trying hard everybody played hard. Tonight just didn’t go our way.”

Halak acknowledged he wasn’t expecting to start both of the back-to-back games but didn’t mind the workload.

“I was kind of surprised but it doesn’t make any difference for a goalie if we play two nights in a row,” Halak said. “I was happy at the same time that I get a call, but too bad we couldn’t get the two points.”

3. Save on Kuznetsov. Meanwhile in the other net, of all the stops Fleury made in the game none was as unbelievable as the save he recorded against Evgeny Kuznetsov with 11:06 gone in the second period.

Fleury, who has six straight wins against the Capitals and allowed nine goals in that span, was lying face down on the ice after stopping a shot from Karl Alzner and the rebound popped out to the left side of the crease. Kuznetsov scrambled to recover the puck and fired toward the open net but Fleury kicked his right leg and skate into the air to deflect the puck. It was a fantastic save on a night where the Capitals’ chances didn’t get much better than that.

4. Faceoffs. The Capitals are currently ranked 22nd in the league with a 48.9 winning percentage on draws. In their eight games since the Olympic break, they’ve matched or surpassed that mark only once – the Feb. 27 game at Florida where the Capitals won 54 percent (33 of 61) of the faceoffs. But in the six games that followed Washington’s two wins out of the break, the team has won just 39.9 percent (133 of 333).

Now, the Capitals center depth has certainly taken a hit lately with the absence of Mikhail Grabovski (sprained left ankle) and unpredictable availability of Brooks Laich (groin). But that doesn’t change the fact that each time Washington loses a draw it forfeits possession for at least 10-20 extra seconds and has to work that much harder to get the puck back.

Tuesday night, when they won just 15 of a total 47 faceoffs against the Penguins, the Capitals depth chart at center was Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Eric Fehr and Casey Wellman.

Fehr, who was moved to center this season after a lifetime on the wing, won just two of the 11 draws he took and has struggled in the circle against the better faceoff teams in the league. Pittsburgh and Boston – ranked 10th and fourth in the league, respectively – are two of them.  Two more, San Jose and Los Angeles ranked second and third, are coming up on the schedule next week.

5. Futile against Penguins. The last time Washington defeated Pittsburgh was a 1-0 win at Verizon Center on Jan. 11, 2012. Since that victory, the Capitals have lost eight straight games to the flightless fowl including seven matchups during Oates’s tenure. They’ve been outscored 30-13 in that eight game stretch, been held scoreless twice (both this season) and lost an equal number of games home and away. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Penguins are the first team to win eight consecutive games against Washington since the Sharks did from 1999 to

2008 (s/t Adam Vingan).

“Everybody knows they have great players out there,” Alex Ovechkin said. “You can see how they play third period, they just sit back and wait [for] their chance. Fleury play great tonight, outstanding. Unfortunately we didn’t score. We have that kind of break when Kuzy hit the post and if we tie the game maybe it will be different game. We have opportunities to score but he was unstoppable today.”

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