SUNRISE, Fla. — The Washington Capitals entered Wednesday night with an opportunity to pull another step away from the Florida Panthers in what likely will be a close race for the NHL Southeast Division title.
Instead the Capitals demonstrated a lack of energy and focus in an important contest and fell, 4-2, to Florida in the latest example of what has become an alarming trend of futility on the road. This loss dropped Washington from the division lead to ninth place — out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The Panthers hold a 57 to 56 lead in points over Washington and have won two of the three meetings between the teams this season.
“It’s frustrating,” said Brooks Laich, who scored one of Washington’s goals. “This game could have been a catapult to shoot us off in the second half. Instead we’re back chasing again. The lack of success on the road, it’s not acceptable.”
The Capitals have struggled mightily to play with intensity away from home this season, going 8-14-3. Given the significance of each of the remaining contests against Florida, though, it seemed the Capitals (26-20-4) would have no trouble getting ready for Wednesday’s game.
Instead the Panthers (23-15-11), who had gone eight days between games because of the NHL all-star break, looked like the team devoid of rust. While there was some tentative play by both sides, Florida snapped out of it and began to tilt the ice in its favor as it peppered Michal Neuvirth (34 saves) with shots from all angles.
Washington finished with 28 shots against Panthers netminder Scott Clemmensen but fell into offensive dry spells it could ill afford, considering the chances it was giving up.
The Capitals’ frustration with those familiar flaws could be heard after the game in mutters through clenched jaws and seen in their stern expressions. The anger mixed with an inability to explain why there was such a letdown in a crucial contest.
“We should have created our own energy because it was such a big game. We didn’t do a good enough job doing it,” said Karl Alzner, one of only two Capitals to finish the game with a plus rating, along with Laich. The defenseman also acknowledged there’s a discrepancy in mood when facing certain teams.
“Some teams it’s just real easy to get up for and that’s because of the team that they are: the Rangers, the Canadiens,” Alzner continued. “Those games are really easy and sometimes here in Florida it’s difficult to get up, and they do a good job playing their game, especially this year. It’s tough to win a game in this building they don’t give you a whole lot.”
A scoreless first period demonstrated that the Panthers weren’t nearly as hampered by the time off as they worried they might be. The teams exchanged chances in an up-and-down period, but it was Florida that created more quality opportunities.
Thirty-three seconds into the second, winger Mikael Samuelsson was barely over the red line when he shot the puck into the Capitals’ zone and caught Neuvirth cheating to try to block a dump-in. The shot — officially recorded from 88 feet — bounced off the left post and in the open cage to give Florida a 1-0 lead.
“I thought he was going to go rim it” around the boards, said Neuvirth, who has been in net for both losses to the Panthers this season. “I was on left post and I couldn’t get back in time.”
It was a goal the 23-year-old would like to have back, but ultimately just one of many things that didn’t go as planned against the Panthers. Laich scored during four-on-four play to even things at 1 at 11:15 of the second with a wicked wrist shot that beat Clemmensen in the top right-hand corner. The teams entered the third tied, but Samuelsson added his second goal of the night on a power play to make it a 2-1 game 4:57 into the final period.
A tally by Stephen Weiss provided another dagger near the midway point of the period. Initially waved off because the referees thought Weiss punched the puck in, it was ruled a good goal and would stand as the game-winner. A goal by the Capitals’ John Carlson and an empty-net addition by Shawn Matthias capped the scoring.
The frustration is rising in the Capitals’ dressing room because the same inconsistency persists at the start of February that did months ago.
“It seems to be something different every night,” Laich said. “Whether it’s one night the power play doesn’t score, one night the penalty kill gives one up, or a mistake, a missed assignment. We’re just not getting it done. It has nothing to do with game plan or structure. It’s just a mistake here or there changes the game and we’re fighting from behind. We just have to be better. I’m sick and tired of losing on the road.”