SUNRISE, Fla. — Whether it’s the 80-degree weather, palm trees or familiarity with an oft-struggling opponent, games here in South Florida don’t often bring out the best in the Washington Capitals. That was true again Friday night as Washington struggled to maintain possession and generate pressure against the Florida Panthers, who sit third worst in the Eastern Conference.
In an inconsistent outing that saw them struggle to escape their own zone and included a nearly 13-minute stretch where they didn’t record a shot on goal, the Capitals managed to snag one point but couldn’t secure a pair. Tomas Kopecky scored the decisive tally in the 10th round of the shootout for a 3-2 Panthers victory that snapped Washington’s winning streak at three games.
Nicklas Backstrom and Joel Ward each scored in regulation and rookie netminder Philipp Grubauer finished with 39 saves and six more in the shootout, but that wouldn’t be enough to overcome Washington’s flaws.
“We have to play better than this, it’s not good enough,” Backstrom said. “It’s very important that you’re very focused in this league. There’s no easy nights here. It’s important we’re focused from the start, good passes, forecheck — everything’s got to be good otherwise the other team is going to outplay you. That’s what I think they did most part of the game.”
The Capitals came out with a decent start. Just 41 seconds into the game, a shot from Mike Green trickled past Scott Clemmensen (23 saves) to give Washington what looked like an initial lead. The tally was quickly overturned, though, because Martin Erat was in the crease and interfered with the Panthers netminder.
Moments after that would-be goal was wiped out, Marcus Johansson rang a shot off the post. With less than four minutes gone, Alex Ovechkin, who was held to only two shots after his four-goal outburst Tuesday, followed up a shot by Backstrom and thought he had put the puck across the goal line, but the official had blown the play dead. As well as Washington played in those shifts, the visitors didn’t maintain pressure on Clemmensen.
“It’s times like those where you’ve got to realize, throw anything at the net,” winger Troy Brouwer said. “He looked a little shaky at the beginning of the game I think, but us not getting very many pucks right away after that it let him settle in and get a little bit more confident. We needed to put pucks to the net early on in the game to see if he was going to be rattled or if we could squeak an ugly one in.”
Brouwer had a chance late in the period that would prove significant — not in a sense the Caps would like. After his shot with 4 minutes 45 seconds remaining in the first period, the Capitals didn’t put another shot on Clemmensen for the next 12:27.
Florida hemmed them in their own zone as the Capitals struggled to make clean passes and limit turnovers in the neutral zone.
The Panthers snagged a 1-0 lead when defenseman Dylan Olsen pinched deep into the zone and fired a shot past Grubauer just under the crossbar with 2:13 gone in the second.
“We didn’t get enough chances, enough shots. We didn’t generate enough,” Coach Adam Oates said. “It was the worst we’ve played in our own end in a long time.”
Florida dominated the middle period until defenseman Erik Gudbranson delivered a hit to Eric Fehr’s head in the neutral zone at the 16:16 mark. Fehr was making a play on the puck when Gudbranson raised his right shoulder and elbow to make contact with the winger’s head and send him tumbling to the ice. Fehr returned to the game in the third period after passing the cognitive tests required by the NHL’s concussion protocol.
“I don’t know what his intent was exactly. I haven’t seen the replay, so I’m not going to comment on that. It didn’t feel good,” Fehr said. “That was a close call, definitely. It definitely stung me. I think I dodged a bullet there.”
Brouwer immediately confronted Gudbranson and fought the 6-foot-5, 210 pound blue-liner. Brouwer received a minor for instigating, a major for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct while Gudbranson received a major for fighting and a match penalty for a hit to the head. Eighteen seconds into the four-on-four play that followed the penalties, Backstrom beat Clemmensen glove side to tie the game at 1 after a nifty feed from Grabovski from behind the net.
But the Capitals wouldn’t build off that initial momentum. In a prime example of the defensive struggles, Green had a clearing attempt picked off at the blue line allowing the Panthers to maintain the zone and score the type of quick-response goal that has plagued Washington this season. Rookie forward Aleksander Barkov carried the puck from the wall toward the slot and fired a wrister under the blocker of Grubauer for a 2-1 Florida lead. It was the 15th time this year the Capitals have allowed a goal within two minutes of scoring.
But 29.6 seconds before the second intermission, Washington answered. A shot by Ward had squeaked under Clemmensen’s right leg and lay uncovered in the crease, prompting Florida defenseman Mike Weaver to try to push the puck toward his goaltender. Ward drove the net and swatted at the puck as well, and it wound up crossing the goal line.
The goal set up the overtime, but what left a lasting impression was the Capitals’ inability to establish any momentum for themselves.
“We tried to get that momentum back, had some opportunities,” Ward said. “Definitely wasn’t the greatest game for ourselves in our own end. We’re fortunate to get a point.”