TORONTO — For a team focused on the method in which it plays games just as much as the outcome, Thursday night offered nothing desirable in either regard.
The Washington Capitals played a sloppy, penalty-filled game devoid of flow and focus in the early going, yet somehow carried a one-goal lead into the final 20 minutes. But for the second consecutive game they failed to see the advantage to a positive conclusion.
The Toronto Maple Leafs scored a pair of even-strength, third-period goals thanks to failed defensive execution to defeat the Capitals, 3-2, at Air Canada Centre. With a 1-5-1 record Washington sits last in the Southeast Division, Eastern Conference and the entire NHL. The Capitals had registered points in the previous 103 games they led at the end of two periods before this week, and now they’ve lost two in regulation.
All told the Capitals were whistled for eight minor penalties — all of the unnecessary or preventable variety — and spent 12 minutes and 11 seconds short-handed. Toronto recorded only one power-play goal, but it was more a reflection of a hapless and unorganized special teams unit than the Capitals’ penalty killing.
In fact, while the constant time spent down a man might not have led to much damage on the scoreboard directly, it prevented Washington’s players from establishing a rhythm and it likely led to a lack of energy in the third period as well.
“You spend so much energy trying to kill those penalties that maybe you run out of a little bit of juice,” Coach Adam Oates said. “For some of the plays, guys have got to be maybe a little bit more focused on their sticks.”
Through the first seven games of the season, costly and frequent penalties have proved to be an epidemic for the Capitals. They now have 41 on the season, and the loss to the Maple Leafs marks the second time they had eight minors in a single contest, the other came on in a 6-3 opening night loss at Tampa Bay.
“Discipline’s been probably what’s costing us since the beginning of the year,” said Mike Ribeiro, who assisted on both Capitals goals in Toronto to increase his team-high point total to eight. “If you don’t change that, then it’s just going to keep snowballing like that. You have to be disciplined on everything: on your shifts, how we play, how you chip the puck, how you take penalties, discipline in your game plan.”
Joel Ward started things off in his home town, giving the Capitals an initial 1-0 lead 1 minute 36 seconds into the contest when he recorded his fourth goal of the season. Washington never built on the early lead, though, as the barrage of penalties began less than a minute later. Of the eight minors, five came in the first period.
Jason Chimera was in the box serving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, for complaining about an initial hooking call he served immediately before, when James van Riemsdyk fired a rebound past Michal Neuvirth (37 saves) to make it 1-1. The Maple Leafs continued to pile up shots — they led 14-2 in that category 14 minutes into the game — but their ineffective power play (6 for 39) couldn’t cash in.
“I think first period, the penalties took the momentum out from us,” forward Marcus Johansson said. “We had two power plays and they had like five or six; that can be a big difference in a game. But it was a tough loss; we need to win these games.”
Washington pulled ahead once again with a 2-1 lead at 2:38 into the second when Alex Ovechkin scored a soft goal against James Reimer (20 saves) with a snap shot from the left circle on the power play. Despite holding the lead for rest of the period, the Capitals didn’t accomplish much else aside from taking three more trips to the penalty box.
The start of the third brought little in the way of a killer instinct from Washington, which didn’t record a shot on goal against Reimer until 9:19 elapsed in the period. While the Capitals waited to find their offense, Toronto didn’t have a problem.
A shot by Michael Kostka squeaked past Neuvirth and was knocked into an open net by Nikolai Kulemin, who wasn’t tied up in front by either Jeff Schultz or Tomas Kundratek, to make it 2-2 at 7:40 of the third.
Then, just before the halfway point of the period, the Capitals’ fourth line of Johansson, Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks and the pairing of Schultz and Kundratek combined to fail on five different tries to regain control of the puck or prevent a pass on a rush up ice by the Maple Leafs. The missed opportunities resulted in a cross-ice pass from Nazem Kadri to a wide-open Matt Frattin, who tapped the puck into an open net for what proved to be the game-winner.
“Once again, it’s details of the game that we need to focus on and put teams away,” Ribeiro said. “It’s 2-1, put teams away. Don’t let them sniff around and let them sniff around and not finish them. I guess that’s the next step is to play a 60-minute game, and when you have a chance to finish teams, finish them.”