PITTSBURGH — With the regular season rapidly coming to a close and the Washington Capitals on the outside of the playoff picture, the stakes are clear. But Tuesday night they inexplicably came out flat for the third consecutive road game and once again proved unable to recover.
In the second of consecutive games in as many nights against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Capitals spent two-thirds of the game in their own end and never came up with any offense in a 2-0 loss at Consol Energy Center.
Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 32 saves to hand the Capitals their second shutout in the past four games, their third straight road loss and their eighth consecutive defeat against Pittsburgh since January 2012.
The Capitals, stuck at 70 points with only 15 games remaining in the regular season, fell three back of Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference’s final wild-card spot. New Jersey moved ahead of Washington in the standings with 71 points thanks to a 2-1 victory over the Flyers, while Columbus defeated Detroit, 4-1, to assume third place in the Metropolitan Division and the guaranteed playoff berth that goes with it.
Even with all that movement around them in the standings, the Capitals didn’t play like a team desperate to keep pace at the outset.
“I think maybe we just was a little bit tired, maybe we was a little sleepy but the situation is we were just not ready for the first period,” Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s hard. The team feel great, we have good mood but soon as they drop the puck we kind of was shocked. They put pressure on our D and we didn’t handle it, we make mistake and they score.”
Unlike Monday’s 3-2 Penguins victory, when the Capitals dictated the game for stretches, on Tuesday they were trapped by the fluid pace of the first period. The teams played a span of 13 minutes 45 seconds without a whistle, but for Washington that equated to lengthy shifts in its own end.
With the Capitals struggling mightily to advance the puck, their defensemen were often stranded, unable to make line changes. By the end of the first period, every blue-liner except John Carlson had skated at least one shift of more than a minute, far from an ideal situation for a team playing the second of back-to-back games.
After a wrist shot by Connor Carrick 3:55 into the contest, the Capitals played the next 13:13 without a shot on goal.
“We were on our heels the whole first period, no question,” Capitals Coach Adam Oates said. Jaroslav Halak, who finished with 32 saves, “played great, gave us a chance, but we turned it over too many times. Probably a little hangover from last night at the end of the game.”
While the Capitals stalled, Pittsburgh pulled ahead when the visitors failed on three tries to clear their zone. Penguins forward Brian Gibbons smashed Mike Green on a forecheck to dislodge the puck. Dmitry Orlov recovered it but sent it directly to Evgeni Malkin, who danced past his fellow Russian to reinvigorate the Pittsburgh possession. Washington missed another opportunity to escape its own zone when Nicklas Backstrom poked the puck up the left side boards but it was kept in by Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi.
“We’ve got it on our forehand with no one on us and I know you’re tired, but you’re tired because you gave it away,” Oates said. “We’ve all got to help each other but at the end of the day too many guys gave the puck away and allowed them an easy period.”
Orlov regained control of the puck with a chance to clear but turned it over to Malkin for a second time on the shift. The star center passed to the point where Matt Niskanen blasted a one-timer as Jussi Jokinen skated unchallenged through three Capitals for position in front of the net. Jokinen tipped the shot between goaltender Halak’s legs for a 1-0 Pittsburgh lead at 16:41.
“I’m there to stop the puck and tonight I let in two,” Halak said. “It’s tough to win when we don’t score any goals, especially on the road, but I know everybody was trying hard, everybody played hard, tonight just didn’t go our way.”
Falling behind didn’t bring about much change in the second period as the Capitals failed to put a shot on Fleury until 10:59 elapsed.
Evgeny Kuznetsov, playing in his second career NHL game, had arguably the best scoring chance moments later when he recovered a rebound on the left side of the crease and threw the puck on net with Fleury lying stomach-down on the ice. But the Pittsburgh netminder kicked his right leg up at the correct angle to deflect the shot away.
Through 40 minutes, Pittsburgh had more even-strength shots (13) than the Capitals had in total (12).
While the Capitals pushed in the third period, recording 20 shots on goal, Pittsburgh was content to limit quality opportunities and protect Fleury. When Washington began sending its defensemen up ice aggressively, Sidney Crosby jumped up ice and sent a shot past Halak’s stick side for a 2-0 lead. The tally delivered the final dagger in the game and another blow to the Capitals’ playoff aspirations.
“It’s got to be urgency right now, it has to have been for the last few games already,” Troy Brouwer said. “Aside from our starts we’ve come on late in games and tried to give ourselves opportunities to win late in games, but when you’re coming from behind against teams like Pittsburgh and Boston . . . you’ve got an uphill battle. It’s tough to come back against these teams when they get a lead on you.”
Capitals notes: Brooks Laich went to see specialist Michael Brunt in St. Louis to tend to the groin injury that has limited him the past two seasons and did not travel to Pittsburgh. He has missed 17 games this season and two of the last four because of the ailment. . . . Washington recalled center Casey Wellman from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears.