When Alex Ovechkin buried one Saturday night, in the middle of the third period, his fist-pump should have been the ribbon on what would have been a very solid weekend for the Washington Capitals. They led the New Jersey Devils by a pair of goals. Hold the advantage for 11 minutes, and come away with two comfortable victories in two nights, both against division opponents.
These Capitals, though, make nothing simple. In all of 3 minutes and 40 seconds, that lead was gone, a puff of smoke. Another night, another overtime, and this one didn’t allow the Capitals to mask their errors with a nice shootout win. Andy Greene scored for the Devils just 43 seconds into the extra period, the difference in a disheartening 5-4 loss for Washington.
“Put the blame on us,” Ovechkin said.
There is plenty to go around. Ovechkin’s goal, his league-leading 30th of the season in just 34 games, came on a wrister with 11:53 remaining in regulation. Verizon Center burst, because the home crowd had missed the 400th of his career, scored the previous night in a solid 4-2 victory at Carolina. They had, for the moment, responded to the Devils’ response, because New Jersey had trimmed a 3-1 lead to just a goal when — and this made the Verizon crowd groan — 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr, the future Hall of Famer who was a bust as a Capital, scored his 13th of the season.
But the defining element of the Capitals’ season to this point is that they so rarely seem to tidy things up in regulation. Since Nov. 2, 12 of their 23 games have gone to overtime. It is a stressful way to live life.
“We’re definitely used to playing overtime, that’s for sure,” defenseman Mike Green said.
And they have been, for the most part, able to disguise the danger inherent in such sudden-death situations, because they have eight overtime wins in that stretch, six in shootouts. The underbelly: only once all season have they posted back-to-back regulation victories.
It is true, as forward Jason Chimera said of Saturday night: “We got a point out of it. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”
But playing overtime so frequently means they’re not putting distance between themselves and their divisional opponents. They did so Friday by beating Carolina, a team that had been among their closest pursuers for second place in the Metropolitan Division. They couldn’t do it Saturday against New Jersey, which came in six points behind the Capitals.
“It’s a little frustrating,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We need to talk about it. We need to make sure we do better for sure in the future.”
Defenseman Marek Zidlicky scored twice for the Devils, who also got two assists from Jagr — still booed in Washington even though he last played here in 2004. Another former Capital, Dainius Zubrus, scored the game-tying goal with just more than eight minutes remaining in part because the Devils intercepted the clearing attempt of goaltender Braden Holtby.
“Tough one,” Capitals Coach Adam Oates said.
As the Capitals continue to carry three goalies, Holtby got the start over rookie Philipp Grubauer, who was outstanding against Carolina and has generally been excellent since being called up. Given that the Capitals play three times in four nights, Oates said earlier Saturday, “You have to have a plan” with how he uses the goalies.
That plan, for now, doesn’t include 25-year-old Michal Neuvirth, whose ankle injury originally led to Grubauer’s promotion. Saturday, with Holtby in net and Grubauer as his backup, Neuvirth didn’t dress.
“I want to be a No. 1 goalie in this league,” Neuvirth said after Saturday’s morning skate. “If not here, maybe somewhere else.”
Holtby made 32 saves on 37 shots, but couldn’t stop the last one, in overtime. Jagr created it, firing from the right circle. Holtby made the original save, but Greene was there to collect the rebound. The puck appeared to come off his chest, leading to a review. But the referees ultimately ruled that Greene had gotten a piece of the puck with his stick, too. The goal — and the Devils’ win — stood.
“I thought we responded very well when we were down two goals,” Jagr said. “It’s a big win for us.”
And a significant loss for the Capitals. Instead of having an eight-point lead in the standings on New Jersey, they are up by just five. Those little things, being unable to finish a game that might have been won in regulation, have prevented Washington from establishing real momentum.
“That affects it, for sure,” Oates said.
The next chance: Monday night against Anaheim, the team with the best record in hockey, coached by Bruce Boudreau, the man who once was responsible for creating the Capitals’ momentum.