If the Washington Capitals’ meeting with the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night truly represented a measuring stick of their progress under Coach Dale Hunter, as players billed it in the hours leading up to the game, then they came up far short.
Washington fell, 5-1, at Verizon Center in a game in which the offense became dormant for stretches, the defensive zone coverage eroded and the goaltenders allowed soft goals.
The Capitals are now 3-4 under Hunter and have lost six of their past nine. Conversely, the Flyers squad that sent a firm reminder of the work that remains for Washington stands atop the Eastern Conference and has won six straight and eight of their past nine.
“You want to keep moving forward as a group and tonight was sort of a half step back,” Mike Knuble said. “It just shows we’ve got a little bit of work to do and shows guys in here that we still have some work to do and things to tighten up. . . . It’s a good little reality check. You think you’re making some progress and then say, well maybe we’ve got some more work to do.”
Washington won two straight prior to facing the Flyers and believed that it had started to find a rhythm in Hunter’s system. But against disciplined Philadelphia, that was without captain Chris Pronger and NHLleading scorer Claude Giroux, nothing went as planned.
Starter Tomas Vokoun was pulled after allowing four goals on 21 shots in the first two periods including a pair of markers that the 35-year-old Czech netminder would probably like to have back. The Flyers’ remaining trio of goals all came off deflections, but those were the product of extended offensive zone time as Washington struggled to stem the visitors’ cycle.
The Capitals were off to a decent start, but with less than four minutes remaining in the first period, Scott Hartnell skated down the left wing and fired a shot between Vokoun’s legs for a 1-0 Flyers lead. It was a deflating tally that the veteran goaltender called a “bad” goal.
“It was terrible performance. Certainly not pleasant and it’s unfortunate in a game like that there’s not really much to say. It was a bad performance by me,” Vokoun said. “Obviously you don’t like to give up goal like that.”
At the start of the second, the Capitals couldn’t seem to establish themselves in the offensive zone, while their opponent had no such trouble. The Flyers began spending a half minute or longer hemming Washington in its own end and playing keep away until they finally managed a shot on net with enough traffic in front to cash in.
Treading water in their own end and chasing the Flyers’ cycle game corresponded with a drought of 9:48 without a shot in the middle of the second period. The stretch spanned from a wrister by Dennis Wideman at 5:59 to a snap shot by Cody Eakin at 15:47. Although the Capitals would wind up being outshot only 33-32 at game’s end, they mustered only nine shots on Ilya Bryzgalov (31 saves) through the first half of the contest.
“Every time the puck crossed our blue line it ended up in our end for 30 seconds at a time,” said Jeff Halpern, who scored Washington’s lone goal. “We didn’t work hard to get the spots and we never came out with the puck clean out of our own end. It was like D-zone coverage practice and we weren’t very good at it.”
Another redirection, this time by Wayne Simmonds on a point shot by Andrej Meszaros increased the Flyers’ lead to 3-0, 14:19 into the second. Max Talbot made it 4-0 just over three minutes later when his long wrist shot bounced off Vokoun’s arm and trickled into the net.
“We all know he would like a couple back,” Hunter said of Vokoun. “He knows it. Everybody knows it.”
Hunter pulled Vokoun after that fourth goal and inserted Michal Neuvirth (16 saves), who did not escape the contest unblemished. Jakub Voracek added the final Philadelphia marker when he flagged a shot by Matt Carle out of mid-air to knock it past Neuvirth less than six minutes into the third.
Although Washington responded to the deficit with 17 shots in the third period, and an eventual goal by Halpern to end Bryzgalov’s shutout bid, it all came far too late to swing the balance of this particular contest.
“I think we’re all disappointed in the effort and you don’t offer up many excuses tonight for what happened,” Knuble said. “You get back to it and you get better.”
Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a 15th consecutive game with a strained right groin muscle. He was sent to visit a specialist this week. . . . Matt Hendricks missed a third straight outing with a right knee injury.