The first game full of errors, poor defensive coverage and careless penalties could easily be shrugged off as growing pains for a team with a new coach and new system. Maybe even the second, too.
But as the Washington Capitals foundered for a third straight game, stricken with a familiar brand of self-inflicted calamity, the question became not when they would put everything together, but if.
Undone once more by a plethora of untimely penalties, inept special teams play and a downright lack of cohesion, the Capitals lost, 4-1, to the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center on Thursday night, dropping to 0-3 on the year.
Washington is now the only team in the league without a point and winless in its first three games for the first time since the 1993-94 season. Through three games, the Capitals have been outscored 14-6, led for only 2 minutes 32 seconds (all against Winnipeg on Tuesday), are 2 for 12 (16.6 percent) on the power play and have been successful 11 of 18 (61.1 percent) times on the penalty kill.
“I would say some of our mistakes are pure effort. It’s very upsetting. Not pushing the panic button, but obviously it’s upsetting,” Capitals Coach Adam Oates said. “I’m not a believer in the Knute Rockne speech. I’m not. We’re pros. You got to be a pro and you got to do your job. It’s not always gonna go your way. And you gotta show up for work.”
For the third consecutive game, the Capitals’ top players looked like shadows of themselves. Oates tried three different wingers alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom over the course of the night but neither sparked any more life in the top line than the last.
“I think it’s embarrassing the way we played,” Backstrom said. “We’ve really got to regroup and talk about this and play the way we should.”
After the Capitals’ most reliable defensive duo was on the ice for all four Montreal goals, Karl Alzner suggested to the coaching staff that he and usual blue-line partner John Carlson should be split up for the third period because they weren’t contributing as a unit.
“You can’t have two guys where things aren’t going their way together,” said Alzner, who couldn’t pinpoint why seemingly routine plays had become impossible to execute. “It’s everything. It’s one of those things where it’s everything. It’s not just one. It’s making plays at the right time, it’s dumping the puck, even, the right way. It’s not having your stick in the right lane. It’s a bunch of things that’s not going right for us.”
The Capitals played arguably their strongest period of the young season in the first against Montreal, but the start of the second brought derailment in the form of penalties.
Ovechkin was whistled for interference less than two minutes in and while on the penalty kill, Troy Brouwer shot the puck over the glass earning a delay of game call and handing Montreal a two-man advantage for 1 minute 35 seconds. Tomas Plekanec scored with four seconds left in the five-on-three to make it 1-0.
Thwarting the remaining time proved of little use because the moment Washington returned to even strength, Matt Hendricks went off for goaltender interference. Andrei Markov needed just 12 seconds of that power play to make it 2-0 and send the Capitals reeling.
“I think we were playing really well and when they got those couple power-play goals it took the wind out of our sails,” said Joey Crabb, who scored the Capitals’ lone goal with less than three minutes left in the game. “When things aren’t quite going your way and then something like that happens, then sometimes it’s hard to get going and keep your momentum going.”
Roughly four minutes later, blocked shots at one end for Washington resulted in a quick rush the other way as Rene Bourque blazed past Carlson to lead the play up ice. Alzner left his side of the ice and attempted to prevent Bourque’s pass but failed and a wide-open Brian Gionta made it 3-0. At 18:21 of the second, un-checked Josh Gorges blasted a shot past Michal Neuvirth (18 saves) before the Capitals were back in position.
By that point, although a full third period remained, fans began streaming toward the exits. Those that remained expressed their displeasure the only way they can, with a full chorus of boos as the team left the ice and headed into the dressing room.
“Embarrassing is almost the right term right now. Pathetic is probably a better one,” Brouwer said. “You know, I feel bad for the fans. I’d like to finish a game with at least 50 percent of the fans still in the stands. Their reaction is completely warranted — booing us. We haven’t earned any respect. We haven’t earned any of their passion, their ambition. We’ve got to turn something around, and we’ve got to do it fast.”