Given the Washington Capitals’ woes on the road, capturing each point available at home at Verizon Center has become paramount as the team tries to force its way into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. On Monday night, the Capitals did little to prevent the San Jose Sharks from snatching those points away.
Washington fell, 5-3, to the Sharks in a shellacking that brought boos from the sellout crowd, which was mocking the red rather than rocking it as the home team went down by four goals before scoring a pair late in the third.
The defeat further cemented the Capitals in ninth place in the East, out of a postseason position with 61 points, and chasing the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, who have a four-point lead and a game in hand. Washington has won only three of its last 11 games.
“It’s really frustrating,” Matt Hendricks said of the Capitals missing opportunities to advance. “A few days ago, we were first in the division, sitting third in the conference. Now we lose a couple. Going into tonight, we win tonight, we move ahead of Toronto and we’re in eighth. The carrot’s there, the determination’s there, I think, in this room. I think the focus is there — I just think the execution isn’t there right now.”
Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau each recorded a pair of goals and the Sharks went 3 for 6 on the power play, while Washington couldn’t convert on any of its four chances with the man-advantage. San Jose backup netminder Thomas Greiss recorded 39 saves to keep the Capitals at bay until the contest was out of reach.
Meanwhile, Washington made a curious choice in net, opting to start goaltending prospect Braden Holtby, who was told he was being recalled at 9:30 a.m. because Tomas Vokoun was battling the flu. Coach Dale Hunter denied the team was recalling anyone from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears as late as 5:20 p.m., just a little more than a half hour before the team announced Holtby had been summoned from the Bears.
Holtby, 22, said he found out he would be making his first NHL appearance of the season when he arrived at Verizon Center around 2 p.m. Hunter said after the game the team wanted to reward Holtby, who played the night before for Hershey, for solid play in the AHL and that the Capitals didn’t want Michal Neuvirth, who started against the New York Rangers on Sunday, to play in both of the back-to-back games.
While the Capitals may have hoped for some edge by engaging in the subterfuge of not allowing San Jose to prepare for Holtby to start, it wouldn’t make a difference in the outcome of the contest.
Holtby finished with 30 saves but admitted there were goals he would have liked to have back, including the Sharks’ first.
“There were some funny bounces tonight,” said Holtby, who insisted his preparation didn’t suffer from the late arrival and notice that he would start. “It’s just one of those games that I have to go back, look at some film and make sure I improve next time.”
The Sharks took the initial lead 12 minutes 12 seconds into the first period when a shot by Dan Boyle from the red line deflected off Pavelski, bounced off the ice, then off Holtby’s glove and into the net. Holtby was the third Capitals goaltender to be victimized by a shot from beyond the blue line in the past seven games — Vokoun and Neuvirth have each allowed a goal on a shot from distance during that stretch.
A soft goal like that is potentially demoralizing for any team, but the Capitals also struggle (10-17-2) when an opponent scores first. Pavelski added a second to make it 2-0 San Jose 3:26 into the second. This time the damage was on the power play, Karl Alzner tried to block a pass but the puck bounced out in front to an unguarded Pavelski, whose shot rolled over Holtby’s shoulder and into the net.
“He’s like the first one back, everybody knew that but he made some good stops before that,” Hunter said when asked to assess Holtby’s play. “The one that bounced over him [Pavelski’s second], a veteran goalie would ride up a bit but he battled back and made some good stops.”
Despite three power-play chances in the middle frame, the Capitals couldn’t convert and at times on the man-advantage they couldn’t even enter the zone, drawing jeers from the home crowd.
Marleau tipped a shot by Pavelski past Holtby, 16:11 into the second, to give the Sharks a 3-0 lead. Washington continued pushing, though, and tenths of a second before time expired in the middle stanza, a slap shot by rookie defenseman Dmitry Orlov trickled past Greiss to put the Capitals on the board at 3-1.
Goals by Brent Burns and Marleau in the first 7:03 of the third put the Sharks ahead with a commanding 5-1 lead. Burns was a point shot through traffic while Marleau’s was a tip that found a way in off Alzner in the crease.
While this was Holtby’s first appearance during the 2011-12 season, his Capitals teammates said they didn’t fault him for the outcome.
“Holts is a great goalie everybody’s seen what he could do before,” Jeff Schultz said. “We just kind of hung him out to dry and you feel bad for the guy, coming up and having the team play that way.”
It wasn’t until the Capitals faced the four-goal deficit that they began to chip away at the San Jose lead. Unlikely goal scorers Roman Hamrlik and Schultz each recorded a tally in the final 10 minutes of regulation but it did little than make the loss appear more palatable from a distance.
“Right now it’s situation where every point right now very important for us,” Alex Ovechkin said. “I don’t think we frustrated, when we have to win we didn’t win. Everybody trying — I can’t say nobody’s trying, nobody play 100 percent.”
Capitals notes: In addition to Holtby, Washington recalled enforcer Joel Rechlicz on Monday in time for him to skate 1:30 in the game. Rechlicz received a 10-minute misconduct for yelling something at an opposing player. . . . Alternate captain Mike Knuble was a healthy scratch as were John Erskine and Keith Aucoin.