NEWARK — After a series of middling to listless performances over the past week, the aggressive and determined version of the Washington Capitals emerged Friday night.
This was the way they’ve wanted to play all along, with a relentless forecheck and proper support to make for smart passes and fluid play in all three zones. The earnest outing wouldn’t be enough, though, as the Capitals couldn’t drum up enough offense in a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils, their fifth consecutive defeat.
Washington is now 0-25-6 when it has recorded two or fewer goals.
While the Capitals haven’t been eliminated mathematically from the postseason hunt with 81 points, they now have three teams to overcome to reach the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference — the Columbus Blue Jackets (85 points), who hold the final playoff spot, Toronto (84) and New Jersey (82).
The magnitude of allowing the Devils to pass them in the standings and the slim odds they face with just five games left in the regular season weren’t lost on the players as they trudged around the visitors’ dressing room at Prudential Center with a mix of vacant expressions.
“Obviously, the guys are going to be bummed out. I’m proud of them because they left it on the line. It was a big game, and they played hard. Great bounceback from the [5-0 loss to Dallas on Tuesday],” Coach Adam Oates said. “I really felt like 20 guys worked tonight. I said I’m proud of them. It was a good game.”
As well as Washington played, its effort came undone with 4 minutes 54 seconds remaining when Ryan Carter managed to skate down the slot without either Mike Green or Karl Alzner closing on him. Carter fired a shot that beat Jaroslav Halak’s (29 saves) glove side to put the Devils up 2-1.
It was a give-and-go of sorts off the rush as Carter fed the puck to Marek Zidlicky in the neutral zone and raced toward the blue line. The New Jersey defenseman sent a pass in midair — so it would clear the sticks of Marcus Johansson and Jay Beagle — to find Carter again in the offensive zone, where he skated between the two Capitals blue liners. But neither Green nor Alzner made a play on Carter.
“I don’t think we play bad game. We play good. We roll all four lines and have great chances to get the lead in the third, but we didn’t. They have one chance, and they score,” said Alex Ovechkin, who scored Washington’s lone goal but had four shots and nine total attempts and was critical of his own missed opportunities.
“Be honest with you, I miss couple opportunities to score and my shot was not that good,” Ovechkin said. “We talk with Oatesy about it. I have to hit the net or hit the pillow so [Troy Brouwer] or somebody else can find the rebound. I didn’t, and I take responsibility for that.”
Ovechkin’s tally came just 10:12 into the first period Friday, the first game since he had been reunited on a line with Nicklas Backstrom after spending the better part of three weeks apart.
Backstrom deflected a clearing attempt, allowing the Capitals to maintain possession when the puck found Mikhail Grabovski, playing as left wing on that top unit. He sent a pass to Ovechkin, who walked down the slot and snapped a shot past Cory Schneider (24 saves) blocker side. It was goal No. 49 on the season for Ovechkin, but the tally also held the distinction of being the star winger’s first even-strength tally or even-strength point since Feb. 27 at Florida, snapping a 16-game drought.
Despite nearly every forward on the roster having a solid chance the rest of the way, the Capitals wouldn’t best Schneider again. There was the wide-open one-timer by Brouwer on the power play Schneider turned aside in the first period, a shot by Eric Fehr that rung off the right post and a save on a partial breakaway by Jason Chimera.
In the second period, there was a scrambling wraparound stop on Julien Brouillette that led to a flubbed rebound chance for Backstrom and a flashy glove save on Dmitry Orlov that bookended Tuomo Ruutu’s tying deflection at 12:21 of the middle stanza. Then in the third, no one came closer than Johansson with a point-blank look at the side of the net, but Schneider turned that one away, too.
“Right now it doesn’t really matter,” Backstrom said of the Capitals’ strong play. “It’s all about the points. It’s disappointing that we couldn’t pull it off, at least one point, but I think it’s important that we really dig down and make sure we get those two points [Saturday at the New York Islanders]. We have to.”