NASHVILLE – This wasn’t the kind of bounce-back performance the Capitals were looking for in the second of back-to-back games this weekend as they snagged only one point in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Predators Sunday night. They also lost rookie defenseman Patrick Wey as he suffered an apparent head injury in a fight with Rich Clune.
Five thoughts on the loss in Music City.
1. 60 minutes. There are bound to be highs and lows over the course of any game, but usually the team that can minimize those momentum swings and establish steady play over three periods will prevail. This weekend, it was the Bruins and Predators who did that, not the Capitals.
They didn’t have the same initial slow start as they did against Boston Saturday, but the Capitals still went through damaging stretches where they lacked the poise with the puck that makes them effective. After taking an initial lead on a five-on-five goal from a player on one of the top two lines – which may as well be the Capitals’ equivalent of a white whale after the Olympic break – they sputtered.
It wasn’t just that Washington was caught flat footed off a draw and allowed Patric Hornqvist to tie the game. Or that the puck bounced off Nicklas Backstrom’s skate and sprung Hornqvist for a breakaway and his second goal of the game, either. But after they went up 1-0 in the first period the Capitals seemed unable to put a pass on the mark or make sure they didn’t give up unforced turnovers.
“It kind of goes back to execution a little bit. The ice gets bad out there, it always has been [bad at Bridgestone Arena]. Pucks roll. That means we have to support each other more,” Troy Brouwer said. “That means we have to give each other more outs and make sure that we’re coming up the ice together, coming back together making it so that everybody on the ice has help somewhere on the ice and not hanging guys out to dry.”
That didn’t really happen until midway through the second period, which meant the Predators were able to jump up ice on odd man rushes, including a handful of breakaways.
Once Washington found its bearings again, it showed that it can indeed dictate the course of a contest. Which is part of what makes the Capitals’ unsteadiness all the more frustrating for the players.
“There’s not enough games to be too positive about getting only one point. It is a point but it’s going to only make our road harder,” John Carlson said. “I thought we were just a little bit lackadaisical here and there throughout the game. We’ve been talking about it since day one, playing 60 minutes because when we all start going it’s fun to watch, we control the play completely against every team that we’ve ever played. We just have too many lapses.”
2. Quick goals. Speaking of those lapses, the Capitals have come to be defined by them this year. One is the team’s propensity to let two-goal leads slip away, which has happened 13 times this season; the other is their season-long habit of allowing goals quickly after scoring one.
The latter popped up Sunday night when Nashville tied the score just 1:38 after Brouwer’s first goal gave the visitors an initial lead. It marked the
29th 28th time this season Washington has given up a goal within two minutes of scoring one itself.
These are chronic letdowns, not limited to any stretch of games or prompted by any particular opponent. For whatever reason, even when things are going well for the Capitals, they can’t sustain that level of play and more often than not it results in the puck finding the back of their net. With the season on the line, each time it happens now the more it costs them.
3. Where’s Ovi? Alex Ovechkin was held to three shots and wound up a minus-2 in 20:40 of ice time Sunday night, but his biggest impact was likely when his presence on the power play late in the third period prompted the Predators to cheat toward the left side, leaving time and space for Backstrom to thread a shot through traffic to tie the score at 3.
To be certain, Ovechkin has bailed the Capitals out numerous times this season and his eight goals and four assists since the Olympic break aren’t nothing, but his effectiveness at even strength has all but vanished. Ovechkin hasn’t recorded an even strength point since Feb. 27 at Florida – when he recorded both a goal and assist five-on-five. His 15-game drought without a goal at even strength is a career-worst stretch and right now Washington needs more from the league’s leading goal scorer.
Now, this leads to the question of why is he still playing with grinding center Jay Beagle. Coach Adam Oates has played Ovechkin alongside Beagle for six straight games now, stating that he wanted to split up the star winger and Backstrom to make it a tougher matchup for opponents. He’s not the first coach to take that route but this particular union also stems from the need to put a more defensive-first forward, Beagle, with Ovechkin.
Prior to the California trip, Ovechkin was a minus player in nine consecutive games. While plus/minus is a flawed stat that doesn’t take in to consideration all that occurs on the ice during or leading up to a goal, that’s a difficult trend for any player or team to stomach.
In their first four games on the same line, each player seemed to have slight influences on the other’s game. Beagle was suddenly trying to cut through the middle of the offensive zone, driving the net more deliberately, while Ovechkin even hustled back to his own end. Ovechkin came out even at even strength while still getting on the scoresheet with three power play goals. In back-to-back tilts this weekend, though, Ovechkin was on the ice for three five-on-five goals. Were any of those three goals exclusively his fault? No, they came from a series of mistakes the most egregious of which were not his.
But if the defensive breakdowns are going to come regardless of Ovechkin’s linemates, perhaps it would be worth it to jump start Washington’s even-strength offense again by reuniting him with a playmaking center.
4. Grabo returns. The veteran center skated 20 shifts and 15:49 of ice time Sunday in his first full game since January when he initially sprained his left ankle. While it was an adjustment after all that time away from game action, Mikhail Grabovski said he felt his play improved as the contest progressed.
“I feel like I just came from summer, it’s hard first period, second period is better, third is much better.” Grabovski said. “I start skating like every shift is better and better.”
While it was a fairly uneventful return, there were moments where it was evident what Washington had missed in recent weeks like when Grabovski would win a battle for the loose puck in his own zone and skate the puck up ice to kick start a transition. Oates shuffled the lines as the game went on and oddly enough, Grabovski went from centering the fourth line to playing left wing on a unit with Alex Ovechkin and Jay Beagle. The team is off on Monday but it will certainly be interesting to see if that particular trio is intact at Tuesday’s morning skate or if Grabovski goes back to his natural spot in the middle.
5. A banged up blue line. Patrick Wey’s apparent head injury is the second time this week that the Capitals have had a defenseman unable to finish a game due to injury. Down both a right-handed shot in Wey and a lefty in Jack Hillen, who missed the last two games with what the team will only describe as an upper body injury after a collision with Ovechkin, Washington will have to shuffle through it’s options once more.
Washington recalled Julien Brouillette from Hershey Sunday, choosing to play him against the Predators over veteran John Erskine with Hillen still sidelined. Brouillette finished with 13:05 of ice time and wasn’t on the ice for a goal against but it’s unclear if he will remain in the fold. If Wey is unable to play moving forward, fellow rookie Connor Carrick seems the most likely to go back in the lineup after sitting out the past six games as a healthy scratch.