The Washington Capitals were less than 30 seconds away from carrying a lead into the third period Monday night against former coach Bruce Boudreau and his Anaheim Ducks when poor defensive zone play, which has hurt them often this year, cost them that opportunity.
Anaheim’s Saku Koivu scored with 26.7 seconds remaining in the second to mark the third two-goal lead the Capitals had squandered in two games, and Washington was never able to regain control. The Capitals fell, 3-2, at Verizon Center to the streaking Ducks, who secured their ninth straight victory on a goal by rookie defenseman Hampus Lindholm with 5 minutes 36 seconds left in regulation.
But Washington’s unraveling began long before Lindholm’s shot through traffic eluded rookie netminder Philipp Grubauer, who finished with 26 saves but suffered his first regulation loss of the season.
“It’s not acceptable at all, I think, and it’s something we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and make sure we all do a better job,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who recorded one of the Capitals’ two first-period goals. “I mean, this is not good enough, that’s for sure.”
Koivu’s goal represented a true turning point, because the Capitals initially jumped on their Western Conference foes and looked energized as Boudreau returned to Verizon Center for the first time since he was fired on Nov. 28, 2011.
“Oh, I was nervous as all get-out,” said Boudreau, whose tenure as bench boss in Washington spanned parts of five seasons. “In the whole scheme of things, I’m more happier that we kept the streak alive. Fifty-nine points after 39 games is a pretty cool feat for what we’ve gone through. The players deserve all the credit. It was nice in front of the crowd here. There was a lot of red out there.”
Mikhail Grabovski scored on a rush after a give-and-go with Troy Brouwer, tapping the puck past Jonas Hiller (17 saves) for a 1-0 lead 7:21 into the game. A little more than four minutes later, Backstrom scored 11 seconds into a power play when his shot rolled up and over Hiller’s leg pad to give Washington a 2-0 advantage.
The Ducks ramped up for a push late in the period, though, and cut Washington’s lead in half less than three minutes before intermission on a backhander by Andrew Cogliano as the home team was caught running around in its own zone.
Then in the second period the hosts were too hospitable, allowing Anaheim to spark its transition game thanks to numerous turnovers.
“If we don’t give up that goal all of a sudden they’re going into the locker room with no confidence, no momentum,” said Brooks Laich, who skated 13:23 in his first game back in the lineup after sitting out 11 games with a groin injury. “Second period it was very clear on our bench that we didn’t get pucks deep. We tried to but we didn’t execute and get pucks deep, and against a transition team it makes them look fast and allows them to handle the puck.”
Also working in the Ducks’ favor was the 6:35 of power-play time they had in the second. While the Ducks didn’t score a goal on any of those man advantages, the constant time shorthanded began to take a toll on Washington’s penalty killers.
With each successive penalty kill, clearing passes were a little less crisp and the stick placement that helped intercept the puck became less reliable, leading to extended offensive zone time for Anaheim. It was after that preamble that the Capitals lost track of their defensive assignments.
Ducks defenseman Ben Lovejoy led a rush out of his own end and made his way all the way behind the Capitals’ net with little in the way of push back from Dmitry Orlov. None of the other Capitals on the ice — Mike Green and the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson — picked up the Ducks who then converged on net. When Lovejoy sent a pass out in front, Koivu smacked a one-timer past Grubauer to knot the score at 2 and send Washington reeling.
“We were sitting in here for 17 minutes dwelling on the last 30 seconds of the period because we got scored on, not feeling good about ourselves, while they’re over there with momentum, confidence coming out for the start of the third period,” Brouwer said. “It’s just not a good combination for us to have to go out into the third period and have a good start.”
It was also the type of frustrating play — Green drifting to the wrong side of the net, and the forwards failing to mark anyone — that shouldn’t happen as frequently as it does for the Capitals at this point of the season.
“We’re in great shape, we’re down below their goal line, and they get one rush and put it in the net,” Coach Adam Oates said. “That goal and the third goal we made . . . incorrect reads on the backcheck, which by now we shouldn’t do.”
Anahiem relies on its ability to wreak havoc in front with its lineup of large power forwards, creating screens and outmuscling opposing defensemen every night. The Ducks took their first lead with 14:24 gone in the third period when Lindholm’s shot combined with that omnipresent strategy to make it 3-2. Grubauer never even saw the shot.
“No, not at all,” Grubauer said. “It helps if they clear the bodies in front, I get maybe a little lane to see it, but if they’re really crisscrossing in front of me there’s no chance I can pick it up.”
The Capitals came within centimeters of tying the game when, with 3:09 remaining in regulation, a shot by Ovechkin clanked off the underside of the crossbar. The puck, however, never crossed the line and instead fell straight down into the crease. Another late-game comeback wasn’t to be, not on this night where Washington recorded only 19 total shots on goal and just eight in the final 40 minutes of play.