VANCOUVER — All things considered the Washington Capitals were happy to enter the third period here Monday night tied. The Vancouver Canucks dominated much of the first 40 minutes but the visitors withstood the storm, and when Mikahil Grabovski scored less than two minutes into the final frame it looked like the Capitals might find a way to steal a better result than their play made seem possible.
But then the fundamental problems of Washington’s performance at Rogers Arena surfaced again at great cost. The Capitals’ top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson were on the ice for two goals against and 3 minutes 9 seconds after taking the lead saw it vanish.
Goals by Ryan Kesler and Daniel Sedin in the third period sent Washington home with a 3-2 loss and a split of this four-game road trip through Western Canada. The Capitals (5-7-0) have lost two straight.
“Two bad shifts from our line cost us the game,” said Backstrom, who along with his linemates finished without a point and a minus-2 rating.
The defeat in Vancouver offered the latest example of the Capitals far-too-frequent inability to escape their own zone as an opponent put on a near clinical display of how to work a cycle. Washington allowed 41 shots against Michal Neuvirth, who finished with 38 saves in his second start of the season, while only mustering 19 of their own against Roberto Luongo.
Shots on goal are one thing, but when every line and defensive pairing is spending the bulk of their ice time chasing the play and looking only to clear the puck across the defensive blue line, it’s all but impossible for Washington to drive the play forward in the way it wants to. Taking six minor penalties didn’t help either, draining the energy of anyone who was part of the penalty kill.
“We’re spending too much time in our end, even though we got the lead, maybe that’s where the penalties come from,” Coach Adam Oates said. “We wear our guys out, wear our defense out and that turns into momentum swings and zone time for them. We got a little tired.”
The Capitals have done little to establish momentum in the opening periods this season, so when Ovechkin failed to convert on a penalty shot just 79 seconds into the contest after being tripped by Alexander Edler it loomed large. Washington managed to play a relatively even first period, though, despite giving up the first goal for the seventh time this season.
A pass by Eric Fehr went off Mikhail Grabovski's skate in the offensive zone, sending the Canucks racing in the opposite direction. Chris Higgins made a pass through both Mike Green and Nate Schmidt over to Zack Kassian, who was streaking down the right side. By the time the Capitals’ rookie defenseman realized where the puck was, Kassian was firing a shot that beat Neuvirth low glove side for a 1-0 Vancouver lead 11 minutes 31 seconds into the first.
The Capitals responded quickly, however, as Jason Chimera’s nose for the net paid off for the third consecutive game. A wrister from the point by Green trickled past Luongo and toward the left post, precisely where Chimera was positioned and the puck went off the veteran winger’s stick blade to tie the contest at 1 at 14:36. The goal was Chimera’s fourth of the season, no small accomplishment considering he recorded three in the full 48-game season last year.
While the first period wasn’t its usual problematic self for the Capitals, they didn’t build on it.
The Canucks outshot Washington 16-4 in the second period, creating several waves of attack resulting in frequent scrambles around Neuvirth and extending shifts in the Capitals’ defensive zone. But Washington weathered the grueling and lopsided middle period, keeping the score knotted at 1.
“We knew we didn’t have our best first 40,” Steve Oleksy said. “But to be tied going into the third knowing you didn’t play your best hockey, you’re happy with the position. Then to come out and get one like that it’s a huge boost and to let them come right back down deflates you.”
Grabovski beat Luongo glove side with a pretty wrist shot from the slot to put Washington up 2-1 with 1:52 gone in the final frame. The Capitals might have snatched an advantage but their overall play remained the same.
Vancouver’s top line of Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler had created numerous opportunities but it wasn’t until the third that they cashed in.
With Washington’s top unit trying to keep track of where the puck moved next, Neuvirth stopped a shot by Daniel Sedin but didn’t handle it cleanly and the puck bounced out awkwardly toward the right circle where Kesler was unattended and able to send a quick shot into the yawning cage before Washington’s netminder could react to knot the contest at 2.
On their next shift, Vancouver’s top trio took the lead back once more by forcing the Capitals’ first line to play in their own zone. Flat-footed and unsure of where to commit to the play defensively, Washington all but watched as Daniel and Henrik Sedin put on a skating display that culminated in the former firing a shot while Kesler screened Neuvirth.
“Everything,” Ovechkin said when asked how he wanted to see the first line improve defensively. “When Kesler score it was my guy. I was kind of playing position at center. Third goal, Henrik make a great move and Jojo kind of was guessing. Two shifts cost us the game.”