The New York Rangers arrived in Washington a road-weary and wayward bunch, allowing a league-high five goals per game and unable to establish any consistency under their new coach. But some habits, like rendering the Capitals ineffective, appear as intact as ever.
The Capitals spent most of Wednesday night’s contest committing turnovers and chasing New York around the defensive zone as they followed up their first regulation win with a dud.
Washington fell, 2-0, at Verizon Center, a harsh reminder there is still much to improve upon as they were thwarted — again — by the Rangers. The Capitals (2-5-0) have failed to score a goal against New York in the teams’ past three meetings dating from last year’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Defenseman John Moore and captain Ryan Callahan scored for New York in its second victory in six games. Meanwhile, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who entered the contest with an uncharacteristic 4.21 goals-against average and .887 save percentage, finished with 22 saves. He has made 84 consecutive against Washington dating from last spring, but on this night he was not extremely tested.
Washington mustered a grand total of 14 shots on goal in the final 40 minutes and spent the majority of that span trapped in its own zone trying unsuccessfully to gain possession for any length of time. While being outshot 31-16 at even strength is indicative of the offense the Capitals were able to generate, the larger concern Wednesday was the defensive zone.
“We’re getting chances; we’re not burying them,” Karl Alzner said. “Defensively, it’s like a fire drill in there. We’re not doing a good enough job at our system, what we’re supposed to do. And when we don’t, we’re leaving a guy in front. We’re getting beat out of the corner. It’s been bad in the D zone. It’s been frustrating.”
There was a rapid pace to the first period, but it wasn’t exactly the strong start the Capitals were looking for. New York outshot them 6-1 to open the game, but there was a greater balance to the imperfection as both squads turned the puck over repeatedly.
Washington appeared to catch a break near the midway point of the first when Anton Stralman was whistled for hooking, soon to be followed by Taylor Pyatt for the same infraction. Pyatt’s minor gave the Capitals a five-on-three for 55 seconds, but the vaunted power play, which entered the contest ranked first in the league (36.4 percent), was unable to convert. In 2 minutes 21 seconds of five-on-three time this season, Washington has been unable to score.
For a team that has struggled offensively at even strength — the Capitals have only eight such goals this season — squandering power-play opportunities carries significant weight. That proved to be the case against the Rangers.
“We still have plenty of time to regroup and make a difference, but we didn’t,” Alex Ovechkin said. “They score four-on-four winning goal, and we try to put pressure on them, but we didn’t.”
While the teams exited the first period scoreless, the second period offered little progress for Washington. Defensive miscues such as failing to clear the puck, making errant passes, missing assignments and simply not skating to recover from errors were rampant.
Braden Holtby, who stopped all but two of the 36 shots he faced, held the Rangers at bay temporarily with a solid series of five saves on a penalty kill while Eric Fehr served a high-sticking minor. The Capitals also found a little luck when a shot by Brad Richards in front rang off the right post.
The fortuitous bounces wouldn’t last, though. During four-on-four play, three Capitals found themselves chasing the play down low, but none gained possession. Richards sent the puck out to an unattended Moore in the high slot, and the defenseman sent a shot that beat Holtby glove side for a 1-0 New York lead with 12:05 gone in the second.
Less than two minutes later the Rangers made it 2-0. After following Callahan into the left corner, John Carlson couldn’t stay on New York’s captain as he made his way back to the crease. Callahan reached the blue paint, and with neither Carlson nor Ovechkin hovering in the slot to truly challenge his positioning, he managed to bat a feed from Richards past Holtby at the 13:51 mark.
“I was frustrated,” Carlson said. “I tried to eliminate him. He kind of rolled off me a little bit, and he made a good play.”
Washington’s defensive flaws prevented it from escaping its own zone, let alone conceive of creating any type of sustained offensive presence. The Capitals were so handcuffed by a combination of their mistakes and New York’s ability to pounce on them that they failed to record a shot on goal in the final 9:12 of the second period.
The Capitals managed to muster a bit more in the third with New York playing safely to protect its advantage but never seriously threatened to mount a comeback. Where the final frame may have a lingering impact, though, is with Troy Brouwer.
The veteran winger clipped Derek Stepan up high, coming into contact with the center’s head as he headed to the bench for a line change 51 seconds into the third period. Stepan left the ice to go through the NHL’s concussion protocol but ultimately returned to the contest a little more than seven minutes later and finished the game. While Brouwer says the hit was unintentional, he could receive a suspension from NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan.
“I’m glad to see that he came back and wasn’t seriously hurt after it. Those can be tough plays,” Brouwer said. “I pride myself on being an honest player and tried to get out of the way without causing as much damage as possible.”