It should have been a routine play in the third period of a tie game Tuesday night. But what happened with 5 minutes 24 minutes remaining was anything but simple for the Washington Capitals.
Forward Brooks Laich retrieved the puck just inside the Capitals’ blue line and flung the puck behind the net at an awkward angle. It caromed off the boards, hit the back of the net and hopped to Mike Green on the goal line.
Washington’s top defenseman corralled the puck but lost it when he tried to pull it away from pressing New York Islanders winger Matt Moulson. Green knocked the puck off his skate and couldn’t find it in his feet, allowing Moulson to retrieve it and find a trailing John Tavares, who beat goaltender Braden Holtby short-side for the game-winner in a 3-2 Islanders triumph at Verizon Center.
“They had nothing going in the third,” Coach Adam Oates said, “And we just gave them a freebie.”
The turnover and the damage it wrought, snapping a three-game winning streak, offered a stark reminder that nothing will come easy for the Capitals in this final stretch of regular season games as they try to claw their way back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Washington’s loss fell on a night the team didn’t get any help elsewhere. The Winnipeg Jets and New York Rangers both won, putting the Capitals seven points back of the Southeast Division lead and four out of eighth place in the East.
“It’s a game we wanted to have. We really thought this one would catapult us,” Laich said. “Four in a row, put this team behind us and then hit the road for three more big games. But we didn’t get it.”
Heading into this contest Oates warned about a possible letdown against the often-overlooked member of the Atlantic Division after Washington’s emotional road trip.
The Islanders entered the game with exactly as many points (31) in as many games played (32) as Washington, though, and are hoping to keep their own slim chances of qualifying for the postseason alive. So when the Capitals forgot to bring their defensive positioning back home with them from the week-long trip in the first period, New York took advantage.
“I don’t think we came out with the fire that we needed, with the intensity that we needed,” Matt Hendricks said. “We’ve talked a lot about intensity. [The media] had talked a lot about our intensity. It’s been good as of late. But tonight we just didn’t play the system the way we had to to make it a simple hockey game. We made it difficult on ourselves.”
Former Capitals and Hershey Bears forward Keith Aucoin snatched a loose puck away from John Carlson along the boards and then found Michael Grabner, who was entirely unguarded on the right side of the ice. Grabner beat Holtby, who finished with 28 saves, for a 1-0 New York lead 5:24 into the first.
Less than three minutes later the Islanders added to their advantage on a goal by Josh Bailey. With two Capitals already behind the net pursuing Frans Nielsen, Steve Oleksy jumped into the fray leaving no one out in front to contend with the rest of the Islanders when he dished the puck out. Kyle Okposo set up a wide-open Bailey, who shot high blocker side for the 2-0 lead.
“When you go on a road trip to come back and the first five, seven, 10 minutes you’re not the way you wanted to be. And that’s when you have to be more mentally prepared for it,” Mike Ribeiro said. “You know your legs might not be there, but your head has to be there and we made small mistakes that cost us.”
The Capitals rediscovered their stride in the second. With 7:54 gone in the frame, Holtby made a stunning stop on Okposo after pushing from his right to his left. The save prevented New York from making it a three-goal lead and instead sparked some life into the Capitals, who got on the board a little over two minutes later.
Troy Brouwer made a strong play along the boards just inside the offensive blue line and passed to Ribeiro as he crossed into the zone. Ribeiro drove the net, and after he had all but paralyzed the Islanders defense, the veteran center snapped a shot blocker side past Evgeni Nabokov (20 saves) to make it 2-1.
A point shot by Carlson found its way through to even the game at 2 with 13:28 gone in the middle stanza.
But the comeback fell flat with a late mistake that cost the Capitals a chance at obtaining any points.
“We need points. We dug ourselves a big hole to start the season and we’re not taking anything away from this game except that we didn’t get any points,” defenseman Jack Hillen said. “We need to get points in games now. We want to make the playoffs. The goal is to make the playoffs. We didn’t get points.”