Capitals vs. Rangers: Same issues continue to plague Washington in fifth consecutive loss

Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports - The Capitals were outmuscled by the New York Rangers on Sunday and lost their fifth straight game.

NEW YORK — Forget it, the Washington Capitals said. Their ugly loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night was an anomaly, something that could be shrugged off. But two days later the Capitals made that optimistic hypothesis look delusional when they were outclassed by another Metropolitan Division foe.

Washington made the same mistakes in a 4-1 defeat to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, completing a telling three-game road trip against divisional opponents having obtained none of six possible points. The Capitals have lost five straight, marking the first skid of that length since they dropped eight in a row in December 2010 under then-coach Bruce Boudreau.

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There’s no denying this team has flaws that need to be corrected, and Alex Ovechkin, who recorded the lone goal in this latest defeat, said the Capitals need to respond to consecutive drubbings that saw them get outscored 9-2 through actions, not words.

“What am I going to say? ‘Wake up everybody’ or something like that?” Ovechkin said. “We say too much. Go out there and do it. We can be good speaker, but you have to show it on the ice.”

Already out of the wild-card equation when Sunday began, Washington remained fifth in the division and 10th in the conference, but in losing 12 of the past 16 games the team has stalled out in an increasingly competitive playoff standings picture.

“We’ve been talking for a little while that we were playing good hockey and not winning hockey games. Now it’s to the point where who cares if you play good, play bad, you need points,” Troy Brouwer said. “We are in a situation where we’re falling behind right now. We’re losing ground.”

The Rangers, 11-3-1 in their past 15, sit in second place — five points ahead of Washington — and didn’t have to work all that hard to capture this victory.

It was a performance wrought with all the errors that have played a role in the Capitals’ struggles of late, from unnecessary penalties, a lack of defensive poise and the all-too-familiar quick-response goal to more questions about the revolving door in net. Starter Philipp Grubauer was pulled for a second consecutive game, this time in the first period after the rookie allowed three goals on eight shots.

For a team reeling from one of its worst losses of the season, the Capitals didn’t do much to change their course at the start here. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov made an ill-advised pass high in his own zone that was picked off by Rick Nash. The Rangers’ hulking winger skated in alone on net and, with a deftly placed backhander, beat Grubauer glove side for a 1-0 lead just 70 seconds into the game.

“Bad turnover for the first goal. First shot on net’s in the net, so you’re fighting an uphill battle right from the beginning,” Coach Adam Oates said. “After that the penalties hurt us.”

About 14 minutes passed uneventfully, which may be considered an accomplishment in itself during this stretch, before Washington damaged its own efforts with penalties. Martin Erat took an offensive zone hooking penalty — his first of three minors on the night — and 23 seconds after that Karl Alzner hooked Mats Zuccarello off a faceoff to put the Capitals down five-on-three for 1 minute 37 seconds.

The Rangers made the most of that opportunity as Nash scored his second goal of the night on a one-timer between Grubauer’s pads for a 2-0 advantage at 16:06.

Then, just as the remaining time on Alzner’s penalty had expired, Derek Stepan fired a shot from the point through a screen and past Grubauer to make it 3-0 at 17:49. That prompted Oates to relieve Grubauer, who allowed a combined six goals on 22 shots in his past two starts, in favor of Braden Holtby for the second straight game. Holtby, who hasn’t started a game since Jan. 4 at Minnesota, performed well in relief again and finished with 17 saves.

“It’s not the way I wanted it to go, but it’s part of the job. Player gets benched; goalie gets pulled,” said Grubauer, who said he felt the second Rangers goal was one he should have had. “It’s my job to stop the puck. I didn’t stop it today.”

Washington mustered a brief showing of life when Ovechkin recorded his 35th goal of the year on a two-man advantage with a familiar one-timer to make it 3-1 just 59 seconds into the second period. But any momentum from scoring one goal against Henrik Lundqvist (24 saves) was quickly and decisively snuffed as the Capitals gave up another quick-response tally.

Ryan Callahan scored on a rebound on a shorthanded rush after Orlov failed to tie up his stick just 86 seconds after Ovechkin scored. It marked the 22nd time this season Washington has given up a goal within two minutes of scoring one itself.

Then, with just more than 10 minutes gone in the second period, Mike Green appeared to score a goal that might have given Washington a glimmer of hope only to have the would-be tally wiped out by an interference penalty on Erat. The winger’s third minor of the night came late in the same period when he was called for a slashing penalty on Rangers center Brian Boyle. But despite the hat trick of penalties, Erat, who asked to be traded back on Nov. 25, wasn’t benched in the third period.

Granted, by the third period, the result was no longer in question.

“We’re in a slump right now, that’s for sure. It’s tough, but we’ve got to find a way to get through it. We’ve got to start playing way better than we do right now,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve got to find a way to play good every night. That’s the expectations we should have on ourselves every night.”

 
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