NASHVILLE — There’s no doubt the Washington Capitals need as many points as they can muster before the end of the regular season, but the one they obtained here Sunday night against the Nashville Predators rung hollow even with the minimal forward progress it offered in the standings.
Washington erased two one-goal deficits to force the game beyond regulation but couldn’t overcome the hard-working Predators, who are all but eliminated from the Western Conference playoff race, in a 4-3 shootout loss.
Nashville netminder Carter Hutton finished with 23 saves and stopped all three Capitals — Evgeny Kuznetsov, Mikhail Grabovski and Nicklas Backstrom — in the tiebreak session. Washington has lost three straight, but it managed to gain two points along the way because two of those defeats came in shootouts.
But a spare standings point here or there isn’t enough for the Capitals, who remain on the outskirts of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with 81 points.
They’re one behind Columbus for the second wild-card spot, but the Blue Jackets have a game in hand and own the first tiebreaker of more combined regulation and overtime wins. Washington is three back of Detroit, which holds the first wild-card spot and has played as many games but also wins the first tiebreak.
“We’ll take the point absolutely, but tonight we needed to come out strong. We needed to dictate the game. We needed to dictate the pace against a team that’s known to work hard,” said Troy Brouwer, who scored two goals in the contest. “We had to outwork them in their own building and be able to get two points. We put ourselves in a good spot late in the game to get two points, but battling in shootouts night after night obviously isn’t working for us.”
The Capitals got started with something that has been rare for them lately, a five-on-five goal from a member of the first or second line, when Brouwer recorded his first of the night just 4 minutes 17 seconds into the contest.
It was hockey’s equivalent of a layup as Mike Green dished a one-touch pass from the right over to the left, where Brouwer was unguarded and able to send a shot into the yawning cage with Hutton caught out of position.
The early lead hardly lasted, though, as the Capitals slipped into one of their familiar post-goal lulls and Nashville was able to knot the score at 1 just 1:38 later.
Jay Beagle lost a defensive zone faceoff, and Patrick Wey failed to tie up Patric Hornqvist as the veteran Predators winger drove the net in search of a rebound and was able to put the puck past Jaroslav Halak (26 saves). It marked the 29th time this season the Capitals have given up a goal within two minutes of scoring one themselves.
Things didn’t get easier for Wey. On his next shift, the rookie blue-liner finished a check against Predators tough guy Rich Clune and was compelled to fight. Wey, whose only other fight, according to HockeyFights.com, came during the 2008-09 season while playing in the USHL, absorbed multiple punches to the head from Clune, who leads the league in fights with 16. Wey fell to the ice when an uppercut connected with his jaw, went to the dressing room and did not return to the game after suffering an apparent head injury.
Nashville carried the play the rest of the first period as the Capitals struggled to complete passes, turned the puck over far too many times and often didn’t provide enough support for each other.
“I think we can help ourselves way more, the little things — the passes, the chips. When we’re going, it seems like those are all on the tape and we make our lives a lot easier by doing it,” John Carlson said. “We also look a [heck] of a lot faster than battling with the puck, and I think that’s something we need to concentrate on.
Late in the first, Shea Weber broke up a two-on-one rush with Alex Ovechkin and Kuznetsov and sent the play back to the neutral zone. Carlson corralled the bouncing puck and sent a pass through center ice toward Backstrom, but rather than being on the top center’s tape, it hit Backstrom’s skates and caromed out of his reach into the Capitals’ zone. It was in the perfect spot for Hornqvist to spring free on a breakaway, and he deked out Halak for a 2-1 lead at 18:30 of the second.
Washington continued to reel in the early stages of the second as well, giving up another breakaway chance to Craig Smith and then an odd-man rush opportunity for Hornqvist, but Halak kept it a one-goal game.
Despite the number of chances the Capitals gave up, Coach Adam Oates wasn’t as critical of their play in Nashville as he had been a day before in the 4-2 loss to Boston.
“I thought we played better today than yesterday. There’s moments where we didn’t execute, but I thought as we got into the game we played better,” Oates said. “I think sometimes you’ve got to give the other team credit.”
When Nashville took two penalties in rapid succession, the Capitals’ top-ranked power play was able to wear down the home team. A pass by Marcus Johansson deflected off Mike Fisher in front, and Brouwer sent a backhander past Hutton to make it 2-2.
Washington fell behind once more in the third period when it lost track of Weber, Nashville’s Norris Trophy candidate, and allowed him to wind up for a one-timer blast to make it 3-2 with 8:23 gone in the third. And while the power play came through once more with another tying goal, this time from Backstrom, it only secured one point, not two.
Capitals notes: The Capitals placed Brooks Laich, who underwent groin surgery on March 17, on the long-term injured reserve list. . . .
Chris Brown was reassigned to Hershey of the American Hockey League.