With a chance to make a statement that they weren’t about to give up the hunt for a playoff berth, the Washington Capitals instead put together an uninspired outing against a team they’re chasing.
The Capitals fell, 4-0, to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night at Verizon Center, watching their playoff chances grow dimmer with every goal. With its third consecutive defeat, Washington trails the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes by 10 points with 23 games to play.
“Just embarrassing, I think. Our effort is not good enough. Especially if you’re gonna hunt that playoff spot, you can’t play like this. We’ve gotta be better than this,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “I think tonight was 60 minutes of just terrible effort from us. I don’t know what it is, but we for sure need to talk about it.”
Despite a plethora of scoring chances throughout the game, the Capitals couldn’t solve third-string Carolina netminder Justin Peters, who finished with 26 saves for his second straight shutout against Washington.
Defenseman Karl Alzner said he didn’t believe the Capitals played tough in any of the three zones.
“I think that we could have done a little bit more going to the net. A few times we could have closed off quicker in the neutral zone and in the D-zone,” Alzner said. “We’ve got to work a little bit harder to slow guys up in the neutral zone, slow them down in the D-zone and that comes from battling just a little bit harder.”
In Peters’s last start vs. Washington, on Feb. 20, 2012, he made 17 saves in a 5-0 Hurricanes win that marked the worst regular season defeat of Dale Hunter’s tenure as Capitals coach. Peters continued his mastery of the Capitals on Tuesday, stopping a variety of high-quality shots from the opening minutes forward for his 13th career NHL win.
“I felt comfortable,” said Peters, who is 3-1 with a 1.49 goals against average and .945 save percentage all-time against the Capitals. He acknowledged that Carolina arrived with an agenda of creating more distance in the standings.
“Obviously you want to try and create space there,” Peters said. “We were focused on tonight, coming in here and trying to do that.”
Washington’s first line had two stellar opportunities on its first shift alone. A give-and-go between Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson zipped through the offensive zone but Johansson sent his shot wide. Mike Ribeiro set up Johansson again with a cross-crease pass and a wide-open net to shoot at as Peters slid from post to post. Johansson fired wide once more.
Following the early flurry, Carolina struck. Eric Staal won a faceoff against Matt Hendricks back to Alexander Semin, who fired the puck into the right corner. Joe Corvo chased it down and fired a shot off of Braden Holtby’s mask and into the net for a 1-0 lead just 3 minutes 55 seconds into the contest.
After establishing the initial lead the Hurricanes’ game plan became clear: try to take advantage of Washington’s defense, which was without Mike Green, John Erskine and Tom Poti because of injuries.
The Capitals used the exact same strategy two weeks earlier when they captured a 3-0 win on Feb. 26 against an injury-riddled Carolina squad. This was the Hurricanes’ chance to return the favor.
“That’s definitely a spot of concern right now for them. They’re missing a bunch of guys,” Corvo said. “That was part of the game plan: just get it down in their end and grind away.”
Less than six minutes into the second period, Riley Nash stationed himself atop the crease in front of Holtby, who stopped 32 of the 35 shots he faced. Nash was unchallenged by Capitals rookie Cameron Schilling and redirected a shot from teammate Jay Harrison to make it 2-0.
At this point Carolina had swung the balance of the game and was spending more time in the offensive zone, but Peters would need to make another set of sparkling saves. He stopped Brouwer cold on a short-handed breakaway just past the 11-minute mark and then prevented Wojtek Wolski from converting on two point-blank shots from the slot.
“We just couldn’t find the net tonight and they had a couple fluky ones,” Hendricks said. “It’s tough for us not to score a goal tonight. I guess I give their goalie credit, I give them credit. But we got to find ways to score.”
Late in the second period, Patrick Dwyer beat Jeff Schultz to the puck on a would-be icing touch-up. Dwyer snatched the puck, popped out in front and then found Nash, who scored his second goal of the game to make it 3-0. Dwyer added an empty-net goal with 1:21 remaining in regulation for the final margin.
Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of this third straight defeat is that the Capitals are searching for answers. They can’t pinpoint what changed exactly to make them go from a three-game winning streak last week to a three-game losing streak.
“The Islanders game and the Rangers game we took too many penalties and now it’s almost like we’re not playing with that energy and that intensity anymore,” Alzner said. “We’re scared to take penalties, we’ve got to be hitting more. We’ve got to make it tougher on teams to play us because right now it’s pretty easy. Our battle, our compete level hasn’t been high enough. The exact reason I don’t know, but it’s been a downward spiral in the last three.”