Sloppy play in the first half of the game cost Washington in a 4-2 loss to the Eastern Conference-leading Bruins on Saturday afternoon as it spotted the visitors a three-goal lead and couldn’t recover. Even when the Capitals found the on switch, a questionable penalty against Alex Ovechkin allowed Boston to deliver a knockout punch.
Five thoughts on the loss to Boston.
1. No power-play goals equals problems. All season, from Coach Adam Oates on down through the list of players, the Capitals have said they don’t want to rely on their top-ranked power play (23.8 percent) too much for offense. But let’s be honest, they do.
No one is begrudging them for having a successful power play. It is an asset. But their power-play tallies account for a greater percentage of their total goals (62 of 205; 30 percent) than any other team and when the Capitals – particularly the top half of the lineup including forwards Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson, etc. – struggle to produce consistently at even strength it makes for a rather simple strategy to contain them.
If opponents can minimize penalties and find ways to successfully kill off Washington’s power plays, it forces the team to find traction at even strength. The Capitals haven’t been able to count on that, though, with the exception of the third line (Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward).
Saturday’s game marked the 36th time this season the Capitals have been held without a power-play goal. They’re 12-16-8 in those contests compared to 22-12-4 when they score on the man advantage.
Since the Olympic break, they’re 1-3-2 when not scoring a power-play goal. That includes two losses to the Bruins, Saturday’s 4-2 defeat and their 3-0 loss at TD Garden on March 6.
“We’ve got to start with scoring more five-on-five goals, get some momentum, can’t just rely on the power play,” Chimera said. “We got nothing on the power play [Saturday] so you’ve got to get some five-on-five. It starts right from our best players on down.”
Historically, fewer penalties are called in the playoffs. If the Capitals do find a way to the postseason for the seventh straight year, they’ll need much more balance offensively than they have right now because they won’t be able to count on the power play to bail themselves out.
2. The third line. For all of Washington’s even-strength shortcomings lately none of that applies to the unit of Chimera, Fehr and Ward. Every game they bring the same tireless approach and most contests their efforts bring direct, positive contributions for the Capitals whether in the form of a goal, drawing a penalty or tiring the opponent.
Against the Bruins on Saturday, they did all three. Late in the second period, Fehr, with Ward helping out, won a defensive-zone faceoff against Patrice Bergeron, who is tied for the second-best win percentage among the league’s leading faceoff men at 58.9 percent, and sent the play the other way. Mike Green led the rush but Chimera did what this line does best and drove the net, so when the puck was loose in front after a redirection off Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuck he was able to score to make it 3-1.
Then in the third period, they put on a cycling clinic. The trio was out on a shift for 1:31 in which they relentlessly kept the play alive in the offensive zone, hemmed Boston in with smart passes and hard work along the boards until Andrej Meszaros was whistled for holding the stick of Ward. It was an impressive display against one of the league’s best puck possession teams and earned the exultation of the crowd, which gave the group a standing ovation after their marathon shift.
3. Holtby. The only reason the Capitals were able to enter the first intermission Saturday afternoon in a scoreless tie was the effort of their goaltender. Braden Holtby, making his second start in the last three games, turned away 15 shots in the opening frame, withstanding solid chances off the rush, redirects and heavy traffic in front as the team in front of him struggled to make a tape-to-tape pass.
The continued breakdowns would eventually be too much for Holtby to handle as the Bruins scored three goals in the first 8:16 of the second period, but given the errors that led to each one the tallies couldn’t be blamed solely on the netminder.
Oates said Holtby’s sturdy play at the start was why he didn’t seriously consider switching the goaltenders. (Have to imagine that playing in the first of back-to-back games also contributed to that decision.)
He also had a few dazzling stops after Boston’s three-goal outburst in the second to keep the visitors from completely running away with the contest in case his teammates wanted to mount a comeback, like this glove save with 6:39 remaining in the second period.
4. Why no timeout. Oates explained that while he didn’t want to pull Holtby, he contemplated using a timeout after the Bruins went up 3-0 in the second period to try to slow their momentum.
“I thought early on he gave us a chance to win the game,” Oates said. “I was going to call timeout. I actually thought about calling timeout versus pulling him to try and change momentum. I guess my thought on that particular one was these guys have got to figure it out right now.”
Oates expanded on his logic further, adding that he opted to instead keep the timeout in case the Capitals needed it later in the game during a comeback rally.
“I almost called timeout after the one goal and laid into them but I said to myself, ‘I’m going to need that timeout,’” Oates said. “Then we ended up getting a goal at the end of the second period ,which obviously gave us life but the last five minutes of the second period we had like three grade-A chances. It was like the recipe that you’re supposed to do showed up and the rest of the game was solid.”
Problem is it took until late in the second period for them to find it.
5. What if that was a playoff preview? If the Capitals find a way to the postseason, it will most likely be as a wild-card team, meaning they would face either the Bruins or Penguins in the first round. While that is far from a guaranteed path, it is clear Washington would need a far better performance from the outset than what it brought Saturday in such a matchup with the Bruins. Because while the Capitals have shown they can be a challenging opponent for Boston, the last two meetings between the two teams have been dominant displays by the Eastern Conference leaders.