DETROIT — Throughout the past two-plus weeks the Washington Capitals proved able to scrape back from any minor deficit. Twice on Wednesday against the formidable Detroit Red Wings, on the second night of back-to-back games, the Capitals rallied to tie. A third comeback from a one-goal deficit, however, would never materialize.
Midway through the third period of a tie game, Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg took a puck off the faceoff on a power play, only to regain possession on the ensuing rush and swoop in for a pretty backhanded shot that floated into the net over goaltender Michal Neuvirth’s head and shoulder. Zetterberg’s second goal of the game stood as the decisive one in Detroit’s 3-2 victory at Joe Louis Arena, stopping the Capitals’ winning streak at nine.
Even after Zetterberg’s tally, Washington (41-21-10, 92 points) gleaned some quality scoring chances that it couldn’t convert, none more inexplicable than Alexander Semin’s shot from the slot that rang off the crossbar with 14 seconds remaining in regulation.
“They come at us hard, they control the game pretty well and it was good we bounce back right away,” Alex Ovechkin said about the constant game of catch-up against the Red Wings. “I think it’s kind of situation, when you have great chance to score and you don’t score and you’re getting frustrated. I missed the puck when [Mike Knuble] gave it to me right before the penalty [that would yield Zetterberg’s game-winner], and if I score that goal maybe it’s going to go a different way.”
The only meeting of the season against the Red Wings appeared to feature the perfect set of circumstances to derail the Capitals’ longest winning streak of the season. Injury-riddled Washington arrived in Detroit late the previous night after its 4-2 win in Montreal while its foes had three days of rest in preparation. Coach Bruce Boudreau said the Capitals knew they would need to endure a strong push in the first period from the seemingly perennial championship contenders.
Detroit (42-20-8, 92 points) took an initial lead 12 minutes 23 seconds into the first period on Zetterberg’s first marker of the night, a one-timer from the high slot that snapped a nine-game scoring drought for the Red Wings’ alternate captain. The Capitals answered just 33 seconds later when Jason Chimera set up John Carlson for a one-timer of his own a few feet inside the Detroit blue line to tie it at 1.
Despite Washington’s resilience, the Red Wings dictated the pace throughout much of the contest. Detroit hemmed the Capitals in their own end with precise, fluid passing and wreaked havoc on Neuvirth, in his first start since he took a shot off his mask on March 7 against Tampa Bay, crashing the crease on every single shift.
The Red Wings’ consistent presence in front of Neuvirth’s net would create a second goal with a little more than five minutes remaining in the first. From a spot on top of the crease, Valtteri Filppula redirected a shot by Brian Rafalski to give the Red Wings a 2-1 lead heading into the second period.
John Carlson said the Red Wings took advantage of their home ice, using their knowledge of the spring-like effect the boards at old Joe Louis Arena can have on the puck to help pen the Capitals in their own end early and often.
“They know this building pretty good, and it felt that a lot of the times they started their offense with a smart play by them — they’re dumping it off the boards and they know where it’s going. We were just trying to ad-lib and try to counter that, but they’re a good team and they use that stuff to their advantage.”
Ovechkin erased Detroit’s second one-goal lead just less than six minutes into the second period on a one-on-one against Brad Stuart by snapping a shot that appeared to surprise both the defenseman and Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, who finished with 26 saves.
The Capitals began to create more scoring chances but wouldn’t finish another against Howard. Detroit continued to out-shoot Washington as the game unfolded and Knuble’s tripping penalty in the third period proved to be all the invitation the Red Wings and Zetterberg needed.
Washington tried to ratchet up the pressure, pulling Neuvirth (32 saves) late in regulation in a final attempt to preserve a point, only to see yet another opportunity misfire and clank off a pipe.
“They’re good. What are you going to do when they come out and they’re rested and ready for bear and they come out that hard?” Boudreau said. “There’s not a lot of teams that are going to stop them when they’re moving the puck like that. . . . Things [like hitting the post late] happen. We have been getting the breaks in this situation for the last couple weeks, and tonight we didn’t get enough of the breaks.”