NEWARK — The prescription for the Washington Capitals’ destruction is becoming familiar. Combine bad penalties with some sloppy decisions in the defensive zone, mix in a few neutral zone turnovers, sprinkle in a meager offense — and the recipe is all but complete.
That formula led to a 2-1 defeat Friday night to the New Jersey Devils, the Capitals’ seventh straight loss. They’ve scored more than one goal in one of those seven setbacks and have now dropped 14 of their past 18 games.
This particular failure saw another opportunity for Washington to pull itself out of its funk against a Metropolitan Division foe go to waste as the sixth-place Devils now sit three points ahead of the seventh-place Capitals.
“We’ve just gotta find a way to win a game. Gotta find some goals. It seems like we have to get a shutout to win a game. We’ve got to find a way to do it,” Jason Chimera said. “If desperation doesn’t set in then we’re in trouble, that’s for sure.”
But the worst blow to this spiraling team may not have been on the scoreboard. Already without NHL leading scorer Alex Ovechkin, who missed a second game with a groin injury, the Capitals had to finish the contest without the services of Mikhail Grabovski, third on the team with 33 points, after he suffered an apparent injury to his left knee in the second period.
“That’s a big loss for us,” John Carlson said. “He’s a big part of our team. We need to find a way [to win]. That’s the bottom line.”
Rarely is it a good sign when the Capitals kick off a game with an unnecessary offensive zone penalty, but Martin Erat was booked for offensive-zone boarding when he hit Anton Volchenkov in the corner less than three minutes into the contest. The infraction derailed the possibility of Washington establishing itself at even strength at the outset.
Then a damaging miscue came not long after they had thwarted the penalty, when Dmitry Orlov pinched to receive a pass in the offensive zone. The puck hopped off the defenseman’s stick and behind him, allowing speedy center Stephen Gionta to clear and send a rush the other way. After a quick give-and-go with Jaromir Jagr in the neutral zone, Gionta broke free up ice for a clean shot that beat Michal Neuvirth blocker side for a 1-0 Devils lead at 4 minutes 57 seconds of the first.
“You don’t want those to get through your body,” said Neuvirth, who finished with 28 saves. “That wasn’t the start we wanted for sure.”
It was only a one-goal deficit but that can morph into a daunting challenge against the Devils, whose commitment to playing a solid defensive team game is among the best in the league. New Jersey entered the game having allowed the fewest goals at home (40), the fewest shots per game (25.5) and tied for the third fewest goals against per night (2.28).
After they fell behind, the Capitals had one truly sustained even-strength shift in the offensive zone and it didn’t come until less than four minutes were left in the first period. They hardly tested Cory Schneider, who recorded 30 saves and hasn’t given up more than two goals in eight straight starts, until they were further behind.
In the second period, the pattern repeated itself. Orlov was whistled for holding, albeit in the defensive zone, just 41 seconds into the middle stanza and the Devils converted to make it 2-0.
New Jersey gained the zone with some smart passing, befuddling the penalty kill coverage and put the puck on the stick of ageless Jagr, who pulled it to the outside pulling the focus of both Connor Carrick and John Erskine toward him and leaving Adam Henrique wide open near the right post. Jagr threaded a pass through the Capitals’ defensive pair to Henrique for an easy shot into an open net at 1:45 as Neuvirth had committed to Jagr on the play.
“We made a mistake up ice and we were like an inch off all the time and you’ve got a player who has [1,730] points, who knows how to take advantage of inches,” Oates said. “Then he embarrassed the goalie, which he’s done a million times and it’s really the plays that lead up to it. It’s composure, it’s focus, it’s mistakes.”
With 11:18 gone in the second, Grabovski skated his final shift of the contest after he became tangled up with Devils captain Bryce Salvador in front of the New Jersey net. When Salvador collided with the Capitals’ center, Grabovski’s left leg twisted awkwardly as they both fell to the ice.
The severity of Grabovski’s injury was uncertain immediately after the contest, Oates simply said he will be reevaluated ahead of Saturday’s game in Montreal. Should he miss any length of time it will certainly be another significant loss to Washington’s struggling offense.
Despite their scoring woes, the Capitals gave chase once they trailed by two and displayed the forechecking game that has been far too inconsistent in this recent stretch. The work paid off in the third, when Chimera deflected a shot in front to put Washington on the board – 149:11 since their last goal three games ago when Ovechkin scored in the second period in New York against the Rangers on Jan. 19.
But not even that late push could help them overcome the deficit they dug themselves.
“It’s hard to fault effort because we played really hard, guys left it out there we generate a lot of chances, second half of the game I thought we really dominated play,” Oates said. “We earned some power plays but it’s still 60 minutes and when you’re not scoring you can’t make mistakes.”