COLUMBUS, Ohio — For weeks, as they slipped deeper into a quagmire of inconsistency, the Washington Capitals refused to focus on results and took solace in their overall play. They won’t be able to do that this time.
There was no silver lining in the way the Capitals unraveled in a 5-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets here Friday night, a defeat in which starting netminder Philipp Grubauer was pulled for the first time in his NHL career after allowing three goals on 14 shots.
There was no consolation in how Washington, after stringing together two of its better all-around games in losses to the NHL’s elite earlier in the week, collapsed against the surging Blue Jackets, who now are just two points behind the Caps in the crowded Metropolitan Division standings.
“I don’t want to make excuses. Just mentally not ready,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It’s very frustrating. [The Blue Jackets] are obviously a good team and they’re going to have their moments in the game, but you just can’t let a game get away and be that easy. It’s not right.”
The Capitals, losers of 11 of their past 15 games and fourth in a division where eight points separates second from eighth, have no choice but to face the reality of their problems or see their postseason hopes dwindle.
“Everybody understand if you’re not going to prepare and you’re not going to be ready for the game nobody going to help you. Even if I’m going to talk or [Nicklas Backstrom] is going to talk, it’s not going to help,” Alex Ovechkin said. “You have to be ready 100 percent. All team today, including me, everybody was not ready. It’s shame on us.”
The mistake that triggered Washington’s self-destruction came early, after it had gotten off to a respectable start, spending time in the offensive zone and generating a few quality scoring chances that Sergei Bobrovsky (26 saves) fended off. That initial momentum was negated, though, when Tom Wilson took an unnecessary penalty.
Gritty Columbus winger Corey Tropp had been whistled for charging on a hit against Wilson, but the rookie responded to the contact by trying to rough up his foe and received a roughing minor that negated the Capitals’ would-be power play.
“It’s dumb on my part. I shouldn’t be going in there at all,” Wilson said. “I should try and avoid that.”
Then just 24 seconds into the four-on-four, top defenseman John Carlson headed to the penalty box for tripping, giving the Blue Jackets 96 seconds of a four-on-three power play. A point shot by James Wisniewski found its way past Grubauer, who was screened by Nathan Horton, to give Columbus a 1-0 lead with 12:08 gone in the first.
In the final minute of play a neutral zone turnover allowed the Blue Jackets to rush into the zone. After an initial shot on goal four Capitals collapsed around the net when a scramble for a rebound broke out, but no member of the quartet — Mike Green, Dmitry Orlov, Joel Ward and Marcus Johansson — successfully tied up the two Columbus skaters around the blue paint. Cam Atkinson, unmarked by Orlov, created a space for himself, found the loose puck and fired a shot high above an outstretched Grubauer. Atkinson’s goal gave Columbus a 2-0 lead with 51.1 seconds remaining in the opening period.
It was another error in focus and poise that pushed the Capitals further off track.
“There’s no way to spit shine it. It was a bad hockey game. You want the glory when you win, you face the music and you face the blame when you lose,” Brooks Laich said. “We were all bad tonight. Individually, collectively we played a bad hockey game.”
Washington didn’t fare much better at the start of the second period, either. Ovechkin turned the puck over deep in the offensive zone, but it was enough to send the Blue Jackets on a quick rush the other way. R.J. Umberger handled the puck upon crossing the Capitals’ blue line and surveyed the scene to draw the attention of both Green and Orlov, but behind the younger defenseman Ryan Johansen had sneaked into the play late. Umberger sent a pass across to Johansen, who snapped a shot from the hash marks of the left circle that squeaked under Grubauer’s left arm as he slid across the crease for a 3-0 Columbus lead at 1:44.
That prompted Oates to pull Grubauer and put in Braden Holtby, who was making just his fourth appearance in a month. Holtby finished with 20 saves in the relief outing.
“I felt sorry for [Grubauer],” Oates said. “That’s not on him that’s on all of us.”
Carlson put Washington on the board 8:53 into the second with a point shot through traffic. But that was all the Capitals would put past Bobrovsky, whose teammates Mark Letestu and Atkinson added two more goals early in the third to ice the contest.
“This is a bad effort, a let-down by us from the start,” Carlson said. “We do have quite a bit of games left but the more setbacks that we have the harder we’re making our lives. You want to be not worried about in the hunt, we want to be in the playoffs all the time and we need to change something to pick it up.”